"The economic crisis ended in people’s minds a month ago", told me a high-ranking Russian official.
Those words puzzled me rather than made me happy. The other day the press wrote about Vladimir Putin’s triumph as an anti-crisis manager who could resume the hot water supply to the town of Pikalevo, and who had made the owners of the Pikalevo enterprises pay wages to the workers. True, one of the columnists of "Vzglyad" on-line magazine wrote that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had looked stupid (if he had punished his subordinates or had come to Pikalevo by tank, he would have looked far more majestic). When looking through the Western press I came across an article in a serious British newspaper that wrote about mass protest actions against the Kremlin regime that were held in the entire Russia.
That’s why I came to think over how the people see the economic crisis. Their interpretation of what is going on is of more importance than the events themselves. Here really strange and surprising things happen.
Over the past twenty years the liberal social and political essays have written that under capitalism the economy must have nothing to do with the activities of the state that can damage the economic development by interfering in the economy. One can come to the conclusion that the Russian government is not responsible for the crisis at all, in particular since the crisis is global.
The official mass media connected the recent economic growth above all with the wise governance and with the efforts of the state leaders and their right decisions. Therefore, the current government should be responsible for the crisis, especially as because the crisis is both global and local (let’s recollect the officials’ recent promises that the global crisis would not affect Russia).
It appears the liberal propaganda worked for the authorities in the long term relieving them of responsibility for the economic processes, while the pro-Kremlin mass media acted against the authorities making them responsible for that. If to examine more carefully the processes taking place in the public opinion, it turned out that the liberals are winners. The ordinary people do not establish linkage between the economy and the state policy and do not blame the authorities for the events generated by the market.
To be more exact, the people connect the economic policy with the politics but in a quaint way. The people believe that the state is not responsible for the economic processes, but…it is responsible for their consequences. The government is not blamed for the facts that the people lose jobs, live without hot water supply or without means of subsistence. But the government is expected to supply the people with jobs, hot water and means of subsistence.
It only seems that there is an irony here. For example, if a flood or an earthquake occurs in the city where you live, you think that the mayor is not responsible for this natural calamity. But, of course, you expect that the mayor will help the victims to repair the electricity and the destroyed houses (even if those houses are private not municipal).
If the crisis is regarded as a kind of a natural calamity, of which no one is guilty, the government acts as a kind of "economic emergencies ministry" helping the capitalism victims.
So we can draw the first conclusion: the government’s activities will be assessed according to their reaction to the economic situation development rather than according to the development itself. The liberal and left oppositionists’ hopes that the unemployment, wage decrease or even destruction of the housing and communal services themselves will create a social convulsion are quite groundless. If unrests break out here and there, they are organized against local authorities. But the central authorities are required to sympathize with people and to help them. In other words, people come out for the authorities rather than against them.
However the situation changes drastically if the measures taken are inefficient or worsen the situation. The people’s rebellion in the Far East, which was caused by new import tariffs on used foreign cars, can be a graphic example. The crisis did not provoke the protests, while the anti-crisis steps led to the disturbances.
Here we can draw the second and the most important conclusion: the authorities will have more and more problems as they will get mixed up in the practical struggle against the crisis. Doing nothing at all would be the calmest thing in this situation, but the government has no right to be idle. They must show their activities even if they do not know what to do.
The government’s actions will be assessed with partiality. The more idealized and distorted view the Russian citizens have about their own authorities, the less predictable will be those assessments.
In one of my previous articles I have already quoted sociologist Anna Ochkina who had noted that the average Russian people considered the state to be something between Santa Claus and Leviathan (a sea monster referred to in the Old Testament). It can give presents as well as swallow somebody. There is no logic here, and no one should seek it. There is a need to wait for presents and conceal oneself in order to avoid being swallowed, which is illogical but everybody has already got accustomed to this, and on the whole, this works.
During the crisis everybody is waiting for Santa Claus. The government is expected to feed, warm and dress the people. But the government is not expected to carry out structural reforms, which is right because it is not going to do that. While the state has resources, it will act as Santa Claus and at the same time, when the state wrings extra money for the social programs out of businessmen, it will act as Leviathan, although it is difficult for the state to do the latter. As a rule, according to the law, the enterprises owners are not responsible for the enterprises commitments with their properties, so the directors, who do not pay wages, can be imprisoned, one can complain of the oligarchs’ stinginess, but this will not bring more money to the enterprises. So, one can set hopes upon the businessmen’s fear of the President, the Premier or a governor. There are no legal mechanisms forcing the businessmen to pay wages during the crisis. There are only illegal ones that may not work in the new situation.
As a matter of fact, the businessmen also expect that Santa Claus will give them "presents": during the crisis the businessmen get the gifts as several billion dollars.
This assistance bears the same relation to the real reasons for the crisis as the resuming of the hot water supply to Pikalevo – to the reasons for Pilakevo enterprises closures. The presents and assistance do not favor the crisis overcoming, they just help people to go through its consequences. Of course, the businessmen, who incur losses of many million dollars, need assistance more than the inhabitants of the destroyed town, who only want their boiler house to be switched on.
The problem is that Santa Claus’s sack is not bottomless. And the government may run out of the resources by the winter (if they are not spent earlier) in spite of our habitual fairy-tale logic.
Here it will turn out that we have neither the terrible Leviathan with his enormous fangs nor Santa Claus with his good smile, but that we have only many governmental agencies with perplexed officials.
This will be the third, last conclusion that all of us will draw sooner or later.
Boris Kagarlitsky, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, Moscow. His latest book is Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (2008)