Sunday, February 24, 2008

Authoritarian "democracy" in Russia

Is authoritarianism gaining a new lease on life?

Clifford Levy's coverage of Russia's politics in the New York Times makes the situation crystal-clear: Vladimir Putin and his party, United Russia, are determined to govern without opposition, and are fully prepared to use all the forms of intimidation and coercion that are necessary in order to succeed (article). The use of bogus charges and show trials against potential rivals is familiar from the example of Mikhail Khodorkovskii, former boss of the Yukos gas monopoly. (See the Amnesty International dossier on this case; dossier.) The arrest of Gary Kasparov prior to the recent elections is another example.

What Levy's coverage this week adds to this highly publicized willingness to use the power of the state and judiciary against rivals, is a similar heavy-handedness on the ground. Levy documents the party machine's use of its power to compel supporting votes from auto workers through threats made by the foremen; the machine's use of school children to coerce the votes of their parents and to monitor their political choices; and the use of intimidation and harassment to silence the activities of one of Russia's few opposition parties, the Union of Right Forces. Quoting Levy from this article, "Over the past eight years, in the name of reviving Russia after the tumult of the 1990s, Mr. Putin has waged an unforgiving campaign to clamp down on democracy and extend control over the government and large swaths of the economy. He has suppressed the independent news media, nationalized important industries, smothered the political opposition and readily deployed the security services to carry out the Kremlin’s wishes."

Why is this a problem?

First, it is a huge problem for the political rights of ordinary Russian citizens. Citizens cannot freely decide what candidate or party to support -- both because their own behavior as voters is supervised, and because they can't gain access to organized voices advocating for alternative policies. This silencing of opposition parties means a limitation of the agenda of discourse to the issues and candidates favored by the ruling party. And this means that the ability of ordinary citizens to have a meaningful voice in the large policy choices that the Russian government inevitably will make is reduced to a blade of grass.

But Putin's willingness to use authoritarian power to control democratic activities also means that Russian citizens are much less able to advocate for very simple local issues and needs -- environmental change, better transportation, better education. This is because every effort to organize in support of a local priority or need becomes, potentially, a sign of potential dissidence. And as such, it needs to be repressed. So activism around common local issues -- environment, transportation, education -- is also silenced.

A third harm that is created by this authoritarian rule, is the fact that it shelters the ability of powerful interests to continue their exploitation of the Russian economy. One of the social mechanisms through which corruption and criminal behavior by large companies are detected and deterred is the operation of investigative journalism and a free press. But Putin's rough treatment of the media and the press is well known; so investigating public or private corruption is a dangerous activity. (How dangerous it is, we know, when we consider the string of killings of investigative journalists on Putin's watch; see the article in Business Week on this subject.)

Some conservative observers in Russia say that the Russian people want a strong, effective government, and this requires strong measures. But this is untenable on its face. If people genuinely wanted the government and policies of Putin's party, then open and free elections would be easily won. So the behavior of the state actually expresses a deep lack of confidence in the democratic acceptability of the policies of the party.

Finally, it is hard to see how Russia can develop into the modern European state that it wants to be, without genuinely subordinating itself to meaningful democratic institutions and individual rights. Russia will be a stronger society and, in the long run, a more innovative and creative society, when it recognizes the ultimate responsibility of a state: to preserve the rights and liberties of its citizens and to respect their will through fair and free democratic processes.

We may have thought that the book has been written on authoritarian government in the twentieth century. But Vladimir Putin is writing new chapters, and they add up to a tragedy for the Russian people.

(See this link for a more theoretical blog entry on the authoritarian state.)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ethnic violence and political entrepreneurs

We've seen horrendous instances of murderous violence among groups in a given society in the past century, often along ethnic and religious lines. Most recently there is the example of Kenya (article, article, article). But in the past twenty years we've also witnessed Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Sri Lanka, India, and Iraq. (This is deliberately not to include societies like El Salvador or Guatemala where organized militias or death squads have deliberately murdered thousands of innocent people; these conflicts appear to have a different social cause.)

My question here is just a small piece of this large subject. What are the circumstances that cause apparently ordinary people to attack, torture, and murder their neighbors?

Commentators sometimes try to understand these horrific outbreaks in terms of a background theory of essential ethnic or religious identities defining groups that can then explode into murderous intra-societal violence. This is what some call a primordialist theory -- the language of "tribalism" suggests the same idea. On this theory, ethnic conflict is taken as inherent in ethnic difference.

However, it is important to realize that this theory is almost always incorrect. The fact of ethnic or religious difference by itself does not create violence between groups, and often these identities don't even figure importantly in ordinary social life. Instead, there are other factors at work in specific social circumstances that bring about ethnic mobilization and violence. (Donald Horowitz goes through many specific examples of multi-ethnic societies -- some with violence and some without; Ethnic Groups in Conflict, Updated Edition With a New Preface.) Ethnic violence appears to be almost always a political process, involving leadership and organization.

In particular, political scientists who study ethnic conflict argue that there are usually underlying processes of political mobilization underway, led by opportunistic leaders who deliberately mobilize support around ethnic identities and ethnic hatred. These instigators can be called "political entrepreneurs", and their strategies can be discerned in many of the century's worst instances of inter-group violence. Hatred and violence are simply tools of mobilization for these leaders and parties. (Atul Kohli goes through a careful analysis of Hindu nationalist mobilization leading to anti-Muslim violence in Democracy and Discontent. Ashutosh Varshney's Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India is also an important contribution.)

And it appears that evidence of just these sorts of processes of opportunistic mobilization by leaders on the ground can be found in the reporting available about the current violence in Kenya. Reportage in January about the post-election violence in Kenya provided multiple reports of messages of hatred being disseminated through cell phone networks, and of advance preparation of the organized violence that would emerge -- before the election occurred. The violence that swept across Kenya was not a primordial outburst; it was an organized political effort -- or so the reports would indicate.

These "ethnic hatred" politicians have done enormous harm in so many societies; and it must be a first order of priority to find ways of stamping out this form of politics.

(Here is a recent article from a Kenya newspaper with more information.)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Turkey's debate over the head scarf

There is a big debate going on in Turkey today over the governing party's plan to relax restrictions of women's use of the head scarf in public places such as schools and government buildings (article). Turkey declared itself as a secular state in the 1920's. Restrictions on the wearing of the scarf are defended as ways of keeping religion out of politics and the public sphere. The governing party won election in 2007 and raised questions about its attitudes towards secularism. Would it favor a gradual movement towards an Islamic state in Turkey? And is this current legislative effort a step against the secularism of the state?

The question is further clouded by the role of families and men in the woman's choice of whether to wear the scarf. Is this a free choice or a coerced choice? And if coerced, is this another independent reason for legislation -- essentially, to reinforce the ability of women and girls to make their own choices? The issue is complex and has also been debated in France as well -- for some of the same reasons of secularism and personal freedom and for the additional social goal of assimilation for France's minorities.

And some observers in Turkey maintain that the debate isn't really about individual liberties of religion and dress at all, but rather about politics: who supports the secularist elites in the military and economic leadership, versus which social groups support the more religious political parties.

There aren't many areas where the US has solved a social issue fairly well. But maybe this is one such area. There are several million Muslims in the United States. And there is a healthy degree of social harmony among almost all of the religious communities in the United States. In particular, there is no legal limitation on the right of women and girls to wear the scarf (and the burka, for that matter), and a wide public acceptance of these religious and cultural practices. Within American ideas of individual freedom of expression, questions of dress and religious symbols fall pretty much within the scope of the individual's zone of choice rather than being subject to state regulation. This reflects John Stuart Mill's conception of liberty -- the state should refrain from regulation of conduct that is self-regarding and doesn't impose concrete harms on others.

This liberal thought about freedom of choice converges with another important civic value -- that of respecting differences among citizens. And so speech and forms of conduct that are primarily related to one's private and personal choices need to be left unfettered. This is sometimes put as a principle of tolerance -- but maybe it is better to describe it as a principle of mutual respect and the acceptance of difference. If we pull these principles of a liberal society together, maybe it amounts to a policy that the Turkish people might want to support -- to be tolerant of the head scarf and to espouse a society based on equality and liberty.

Moreover, there are some positive social goods that come out of this approach -- the civility that this approach encourages among citizens of different faiths is also an important component of social harmony and secular equality.

Against these conclusions, advocates of the restrictions might argue that these are western philosophical ideas that don't reflect Turkey's complex history very well. They might argue that Millian liberalism is too simple a lens through which to view a many-sided issue such as this.

So the question here is this: whether it is useful to bring classical ideas of liberalism and the proper relationship between state and individual liberties, into this complicated and historically extended debate in Turkey over the head scarf?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Social progress in India?

How much social progress has India made since Independence sixty years ago? According to economist V. K. Ramachandran, not very much when it comes to life in the countryside. (Hear my interview with Ramachandran on iTunes and on my web page.) Ramachandran gives a profile of the social problems faced by India at the time of Independence -- depths of income poverty, illiteracy, avoidable disease, and the worst forms of caste, class and gender oppression in the world -- and then judges that, appallingly, these same problems continue in the countryside without significant change. And this failure derives from the country's failure to solve its agrarian question. Poverty, inequality, and deprivation continue to be rampant in rural society. And this persistence derives from the failure to address the fundamental relations of property and power in the countryside. Moreover, the processes of globalization and liberalization have, if anything, intensified these problems.

Professor Ramachandran is a research professor at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, and is the author of Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study.

What is involved in solving the agrarian question, according to Ramachandran? Ramachandran refers to these goals of agrarian transformation -- freeing the countryside of landlordism; freeing the working peasantry and agricultural workers from their current fetters; guaranteeing the means of income; redistributing agricultural land; providing rural working people with house sites and homes; creating conditions for the liberation of people of oppressed castes and tribes and women; to ensure formal education; and to achieve the general democratization of life and cultural development in India. "Without that, there is no progress."

Professor Ramachandran takes issue with the view of India that appears to be emerging in Japan and the United States -- as a country with shopping malls, hi-tech companies, and rapid economic growth. These images are true of some places in India -- but they have little relevance to conditions in rural India. (And the population of India continues to be at least 70% rural and agricultural.) The progress that has occurred in the countryside is meaningful -- agriculture has increased its productivity significantly since 1960, and India is now grain-self-sufficient. India is no longer locked into a "ship-to-mouth" existence. But these changes in the productivity of agriculture have not been associated with changes in the basic institutions present in the countryside -- what Ramachandran refers to as the "agrarian structure." And these social relations continue to create a system that entrenches inequality and deprivation for peasants and agricultural workers. Ramachandran maintains that three "new" inequalities have emerged -- inequalities between regions, inequalities between crops, and inequalities between classes. (As an expert on agricultural workers, Ramachandran is in a good position to observe what has happened for this segment of India's rural population.)

Ramachandran is an activist-scholar, and he is involved in a large collaboration with other scholars to provide a review of conditions in villages in a growing list of states in India. Ramachandran underlines the point that there is great variation across the map of India. The goal of these studies is to provide a detailed snapshot of the social conditions in the villages -- studies of the oppressed classes, tribes, and women; the state of village amenities (sewerage, clean water, roads, education). Over a number of years the goal of the research effort is to arrive at a more nuanced description of the conditions of rural life across many states in India. This research is highly valuable, since it permits disaggregation of descriptions of the countryside that are often based on aggregated data.

An interesting feature of this research project is the fact that it is deliberately linked to the activist organizations of peasants, workers, and women. The researchers consult with the agrarian activists to discover what the most important issues are -- and then to focus research effort on discovering the social details associated with these issues. And Ramachandran is emphatic in saying that the rigor of scientific investigation can and should be combined with this collaboration with the activist organizations. In fact, he indicates that the organizations themselves are insistent about this point. "Don't lose your academic rigor," the leaders of the organizations insist.

There is a lot more in the interview. But the bottom line is that Ramachandran offers a really good example of the engaged scholar. And the kind of social research that he and his colleagues are doing is well designed to help to diagnose some of the changes and public policies that are needed in India.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Persistent urban inequality

Race, segregation, and inequality -- these are the major issues that metropolitan America needs to address, and hasn't so far. But there is some good analytical work being done to allow us to better understand these processes -- and therefore, possibly to alter the course we are on.

I heard an excellent talk a week or so ago by Myron Orfield of the University of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Area Research Corporation (MARC). Orfield is a national expert on the governmental and social processes affecting poverty, segregation, and schooling in the major metropolitan areas of the United States. At his talk at the University of Michigan he provided a series of map overlays for Minneapolis-St. Paul that demonstrated the coincidence of neighborhoods with high incidence of poverty, failing schools, high crime rates, and poor health performance. And, importantly, he highlighted some of the political processes through which school and district boundaries have been drawn in Minneapolis-St. Paul communities that have the fairly direct effect of sharpening the segregation of individual schools.

The same set of issues is addressed in this month's issue of the Boston Review in a forum on "ending urban poverty." Each of the contributions is very good, and especially interesting is an article by Patrick Sharkey with the title "The Inherited Ghetto." Sharkey begins with a crucial and familiar point: that racial inequality has changed only very slightly since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. The concentration of black poverty in central cities has not substantially improved over that period of time, and the inequalities associated with this segregation have continued. And the association between neighborhood, degree of segregation, and income and quality of life is very strong: children born into a poor and segregated neighborhood are likely to live as adults -- in a poor and segregated neighborhood. Sharkey documents this statement on the basis of his analysis of the data provided the University of Michigan Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the first major statistical study of several generations of families in terms of residence, income, occupation, health, and other important variables. Using a computer simulation based on the two-generation data provided by the Panel Study, Sharkey indicates that it would take five generations for the descendants of a family from a poor, black neighborhood to have a normal expectation of living in a typical American neighborhood. (That's one hundred years in round numbers.) In other words: the progress towards racial equality in urban America is so slow as to be virtually undetectable.

What are the reasons for this? That is Sharkey's main question. One point that he makes is an important one for explaining the continuation of segregation in the forty years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act. This is the fact that the policy choices that have been made by federal and local authorities concerning housing patterns have more or less deliberately favored segregation by race. Beginning with the initial Fair Housing legislation -- which was enacted without giving the Federal agencies the power of enforcement -- both federal and state policies have reinforced segregation. As Sharkey notes, federal housing programs have subsidized the growth of largely white suburbs, while redlining and other credit-related restrictions have impeded the ability of black families to follow into these new suburban communities. The continuation of informal discrimination in the housing market (as evidenced by "testers" from fair housing agencies) further reinforces continuing segregation between inner-city black population and the suburban, mostly white population. Sharkey makes another very important point: the forms of disadvantage -- economic, health, income, educational -- that currently exist between black and white, poor and rich -- are the result of at least fifty years of social accumulation. So we should be resolute in designing policies that will move the dial in the right direction -- and then stick with those policies for a couple of generations. We should not expect that this accumulation of disadvantage will be reversed in a short time.

One other important part of Sharkey's piece is his review of the results of several experiments in relocation: what happens when individual families are relocated into less segregated, less poor neighborhoods (the "Moving to Opportunity" program and the Gautreaux program in Chicago)? Stefanie DeLuca picks this topic up in her equally interesting article in the same issue, "Neighborhood Matters."This topic is one of the most important issues of social justice that we face, and this forum is a great contribution to better thinking about the subject.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Rights and violence in China

There is a pretty vibrant conversation going on internationally and in China about the role that individual rights should play in Chinese society. (There was an interesting conference on this subject at the University of Michigan early in February.) Some theorists object to the idea of formulating China's issues of state-society relations in terms of individual rights. They object that the theory of individual rights is an expression of liberal or neo-liberal morality, and that this theory doesn't give enough expression for the value of the society as a whole.

Other social scientists document the fact that there are a variety of increasingly visible groups in China who are formulating their claims in terms of rights: peasants in terms of their rights of land use, workers in terms of their labor rights, urban homeowners in terms of incursions against their homes by land developers, and city dwellers in terms of their rights against environmental harms. In each case the groups consist of people who have a deep and shared interest in something -- access to land, working conditions that are safe and compensated, immunity from environmental toxins, security of their homes; these interests are threatened by powerful interests in Chinese society; and people in these groups want to have the freedom to struggle for their rights, and they want the state to have a system of law that protects them against violence when they do so. (Kevin O'Brien documents some of these social movements in Rightful Resistance in Rural China.)

So what is involved in advocating for "legality" and "individual rights" for China's future? Most basically, rights have to do with protection against repression and violence. The core rights that Western political theorists such as John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, or John Locke articulate are rights like these: freedom of association, freedom of action, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and the right to security of property. Karl Marx criticized these rights as "bourgeois rights", and some post-modern theorists today denigrate these rights as a vestige of liberalism.

But I want to assert that these rights are actually fundamental to a decent society -- and that this is true for China's future as well. Moreover, I want to assert that each of these rights is a reply to the threat of violence and coercion. Take the rights of expression and association: when a group of people share an interest -- let's say, an interest in struggling against a company that is dumping toxic chemicals into a nearby river -- they can only actualize their collective interests if they are able to express their views and to call upon others to come together in voluntary associations to work against this environmental behavior. The situation in China today is harshly contrary to this ideal: citizens have to be extremely cautious about public expression of protest, and they are vulnerable to violent attack if they organize to pressure companies or local government to change their behavior.

The use of private security companies on behalf companies, land developers, and other powerful interests in China is well documented -- as it was in the labor struggles of major industries in the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. And these companies are pretty much unconstrained by legal institutions in their use of violence and gangs of thugs to intimidate and attack farmers, workers, or city dwellers. It's worth visiting some of the web sites that document some of this violence -- for example, this report about thugs attacking homeowners in Chaoyang. Similar reports can be unearthed in the context of rural conflicts over land development and conflicts between factory owners and migrant workers.

So this brings us to "legality." What is the most important feature of the rule of law? It is to preserve the simple, fundamental rights of citizens: rights of personal security, rights of property, rights of expression. Why, in the photos included in the web site above involving an organized attack by security thugs against innocent Chaoyang residents -- why are there no police in the scene making arrests of these thugs? And what does it say to other people with grievances? What it says is simple -- the state will tolerate the use of force against you by powerful agents in society. And what this expresses is repression.

It is also true that the state itself is often the author of repression against its own citizens for actions that would be entirely legitimate within almost any definition of core individual right: blogging, speaking, attempting to organize migrant poor people. When the state uses its power to arrest and imprison people who speak, write, and organize -- it is profoundly contradicting the core rights that every citizen needs to have.

It should also be said that these legal rights cannot be separated from the idea of democracy. Democracy most fundamentally requires that people be able to advocate for the social policies that they prefer. Social outcomes should be the result of a process that permits all citizens to organize and express their interests and preferences -- that is the basic axiom of democracy. What this democratic value makes impossible is the idea that the state has a superior game plan -- one that cannot brook interference by the citizens -- and that it is legitimate for the state to repress and intimidate the citizens in their efforts to influence the state's choices. A legally, constitutionally entrenched set of individual civil and political rights takes the final authority of deciding the future direction of society out of the hands of the state.

Give Chinese people democratic rights and they can make some real progress on China's social ills -- unsafe working conditions, abuse of peasants, confiscation of homeowners' property, the creation of new environmental disasters. Deprive them of democratic rights, and the power of the state and powerful private interests can create continuing social horrors -- famine, permanent exploitation of workers, environmental catastrophes, development projects that displace millions of people, and so on. The authoritarian state and the the thugocracy of powerful private interests combine to repress the people.

So let's not fall for the post-modern jargon, the equation of liberal democratic values with neo-conservative politics or worse, and let's advocate strongly for a Chinese society that incorporates strong legal protections for individual rights and liberties.