V / Russian capitalism is both political and normal: On expropriation and social reproduction

by Olena Lyubchenko

In 2006, in his book The Development of Capitalism in Russia, the late sociologist Simon Clarke wrote that, “a voluntaristic and dualistic approach, which analyses the emerging forms of capitalism as a synthesis of an ideal model and an alien legacy, fails to identify the indigenous roots and real foundation of the dynamic of the transition from a state socialist to a capitalist economy and so fails to grasp the process of transformation as a historically developing social reality […] The liberal theorists of totalitarianism were taken completely by surprise when the apparently all-powerful soviet state disintegrated, not as a result of any liberal critique but under the weight of its own contradictions”.

The tendency that Clarke cautioned against in 2006 – to characterise capitalism in Russia in terms of a hybrid of an “ideal model and an alien legacy” – has been revived in the current moment.  Just over a year into Russia’s war in Ukraine, most analysis of the war tends to emphasise political or ideological explanations at the expense of understanding the material interests that underlay its causes2. 

The Russian regime’s imperialism, authoritarianism, corruption, and patriarchy are juxtaposed with Western liberal democracy, private property relations, universal human rights, and a non-negotiable commitment to the principle of sovereignty. 

The Putin regime, particularly following the invasion of Ukraine, is presented as distinct from, and at times exceptional to, the “normal” and healthy workings of global capitalism. The stated reason for this differentiation often lies in Russia’s particular transition to capitalism, which resulted in an irrational, hybrid or mixed capitalism, with political-ideological interests driving Russian imperialism. This has led many to even question if the current Russian regime serves the interests of capital at all. Focusing on the political-ideological factions in Russia risks portraying Russia as external to global capitalism, in a way reminiscent of the non-materialist teachings of the Gospel of John – how to be in the world but not of the world. 

In an effort to transcend the polarised debate between those who offer political-ideological explanations and those who offer material-economic ones, Volodymyr Ishchenko highlights how ‘the political and ideological rationales for the invasion reflect the [Russian] ruling class’s interests.’ Instead of Putin’s simple irrational obsession with domination, or national(ist) interests, he argues that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the formation and reproduction of the Russian ruling class – “political capitalists” – has been tightly linked with the transformation of political office into a vehicle for private enrichment. Accordingly, this structure of accumulation, in part dependent on territorial expansion to sustain the rate of rent, originated in the process of primitive accumulation during the collapse of the Soviet Union, where the expropriation of the state became its very source. 

Ishchenko’s analysis captures the relationship between the political and the economic in a way that does not reproduce dichotomous ideas of Russia exceptionalism and the idea that it stands external to global capitalism, gesturing instead toward what Clarke termed “the weight of its own contradictions”. In response to Ishchenko’s call for demystifying the connection between the political and economic interests of the Russian ruling class through the lens of post-Soviet transformation, my intervention offers two additional points. 

First, I caution against using hybridity or mixedness to explain “Russian capitalism” and the invasion of Ukraine, because it contains an implicit assumption about capitalism as it should be: a pure system. ​​Here I offer a critical response to Ilya Matveev’s call that we must account for Russia’s particularity – the primacy of the (geo)political – on its own terms, rather than fitting into economistic Marxist preconceptions. I believe this necessitates revisiting what capitalism really is, its global development, and the inter-relation between the “liberal-democratic” world and post-Soviet Russia. 

Applying the “mixed capitalism” concept to supposed deviants from liberal democratic states risks emptying the capitalist mode of production of its political and social content. It juxtaposes “rational” and “irrational” capitalism, thus reproducing the myth that capitalism can be free from racialised, gendered, and environmental violence. To address this, I draw on Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) and the literature on primitive accumulation in order to demonstrate the integral relationship between production and social reproduction in capitalism. These insights reveal that oppression and expropriation are not limited to hybrid cases, but are instead essential to the workings of capitalism in general. 

Using this understanding of capitalism, second, I build on Ishchenko’s analysis of the 1990s as a time of primitive accumulation, but I centre the restructuring of the relationship between production and social reproduction to trace how capitalism is concretised in the Russian case. I argue that the current heteronationalist ideological-political feature of the Putin regime, its militarisation and the war in Ukraine, often cited as proof of Russia’s deviation from capitalism proper, is in fact a feature of its neoliberal regime of accumulation. 

Specifically, I examine the close links between the financialisation of social reproduction and the militarisation of the Russian state, which is driven by dispossessive pronatalist social policy under Putin. Debt-based inclusion of working-class households through pronatalist social policy serves as a mechanism for targeted recruitment for military service. 

The task of demystifying these intertwined dynamics of capitalist expropriation, oppression, and exploitation in the Russian case is not just a descriptive exercise. It advances our understanding of how capitalism operates in general. Without this task in mind, not only will we fail to comprehend the nature of the Putin regime as a product of global capitalism, but we will also fail to devise effective strategies for political opposition against it. 

Of hybrids 

Russia’s economy is often characterised as hybrid, with labels such as crony, managed, dependent, patrimonial, authoritarian, or kleptocratic highlighting its distinction from the “normal” capitalism of post-industrial liberal democracies. These different qualifiers signify that something went wrong with the capitalism-equals-democracy equation, as promised by post-war modernisation theorists. 

It is now widely acknowledged even in solid mainstream accounts like Aslund Anders’s recent book Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy (2019), that the 1990s transition laid the groundwork for Putin’s statist-authoritarian turn, beginning in the mid-2000s and present-day Russian expansionism. The Russian regime’s almost metaphysical thirst for political domination at home and abroad, then, is not only irrational, but also exceptional. 

No country should invade its neighbour in the twenty-first century! This sentiment has become common sense to the point that in March 2022, roughly a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US Department of Justice launched a task force dedicated to enforcing US sanctions against Russian capital named KleptoCapture. Calls by US progressives to seize all – including American – oligarchs’ wealth and redistribute it to the people went unanswered, because, as CNN declared: “Russia’s oligarchs are different from other billionaires.” It is in this way that Russian capitalism is depicted as intrinsically corrupt and alien compared to “normal capitalism”. 

When critical researchers utilise the term hybridity or mixed regime, they rightly want to account for Russia’s difference with liberal democratic capitalist states. 

By contrasting Russian predatory capitalism, characterised by close political and personal ties to the state, with the supposedly rational private property relations of (usually Western) liberal democratic capitalist states, we risk reproducing an idea of capitalism stripped of oppression and expropriation, with “extra-economic” violence associated exclusively with historical moments or particularly backward regions.. 

To show how they represent integral ingredients of the capitalist system in all its historical and concrete manifestations, including in Russia, we should instead utilise a more comprehensive definition of capitalism offered by SRT and the literature on primitive accumulation. 

The hybridity framework assumes the existence of two separate types of accumulation: advanced economic exploitation which, though subject to crises, is based on “free” workers and arms-length “soft” regulation, and a more archaic form of accumulation based on “extra-economic” violence and political “intervention”. 

Yet, Marx’s critique of primitive accumulation questions the romantic assumption that capitalism can come in a “clean”, “non-political” form. As political theorist and historian Ellen Meiksins Wood writes: “For Marx, the ultimate secret of capitalist production is a political one.” Indeed, as Marxist Feminists have shown, productive and established accumulation under a legal form of contract between capital and “free” labour (free from subsistence) has always been accompanied by violent expropriations in the sphere of social reproduction, formulated in laws and public policies, and thereby facilitated by the state at home and abroad. 

The accumulation of capital necessitates the ongoing subordination of reproductive labour in households and communities through the regulation and discipline of workers’ bodies and sexuality, aimed at reproducing labour power and this tends to take the form of the “traditional” heteronormative family structure. 

The significance of social reproduction as theory, in Tithi Bhattacharya’s words, is that it shows how social oppression related to gender, sexuality, and race – often relegated to “the margins of analysis or [understood] as add-ons to a deeper and more vital economic process” – are in fact “structurally relational to, and hence shaped by, capitalist production”. As the Brazilian historian Virginia Fontes points out, it is a Western assumption that extra-economic violence is a rare moment of capital accumulation during crises. Indeed, if capitalism is global, then expropriation is prevalent not just at a particular moment in history or “outside” regimes of capitalist accumulation. 

In short, the idea that post-Soviet Russia could have followed the trajectory from the welfare state model to neoliberalism akin to Western capitalist states, is flawed for two reasons. First, because a clean notion of capitalism is a myth. Second, the centre and periphery of global capitalism are interdependent parts of the same global capitalist system. The particular story of the transformation of the Soviet Union casts light on the nature of capitalism.

Normal capitalism

Much has been written about the formation of the capitalist state in Russia as we know it today, which emerged from the ruins of the Soviet political economy and the dynamics of its integration within global capitalism that fell into crisis in the late 1980s. 

There is a crucial yet overlooked aspect to contemporary Russian capitalism: the restructuring of the relationship between production and social reproduction during this period. This was not the privatisation of the pre-capitalist/non-capitalist commons, but the reconfiguration of state ownership of the means of (re)production. 

To put it crudely, in comparison to the Keynesian welfare states, the centralised system of surplus appropriation and redistribution in the Soviet Union was based on subordination of (re)production to the material needs of the state/military apparatus. As both Simon Clarke and Tony Wood show, this was characterised by a serious contradiction: the state aimed to maximise the material surplus extracted from enterprises under its control, while the enterprises aimed to maximise the cost or the state resources at their disposal and conceal their potential productivity. 

This was the case, in part, because the fundamental guarantees of (although inadequate) social citizenship – childcare, leisure, housing etc.– were fulfilled through the Soviet enterprise, in other words, in addition to meeting the production plan, the enterprise was responsible for the reproduction of its labour force. The significance is that wages were only one part of the value necessary to reproduce the Soviet worker, where public services, de- and non-commodified social goods which (however inadequately) subsidised the unpaid social reproductive labour in households and communities formed the other part, to a greater extent than in the Keynesian welfare states. 

During the period of transformation in the 1990s, class relations between alienated and disempowered workers and Soviet enterprise managers and stronger institutional state infrastructure eased the implementation of the “shock therapy” that so devastated the post-Soviet Russian economy. 

State-owned enterprises and the public sphere were transformed into private sources of income, while Soviet state institutions, legal resources, and apparatuses formed an infrastructural foundation for capital accumulation. For instance, with privatisation in 1992, enterprises lost state subsidies and were required to divest social reproduction functions like housing in order to focus on business. 

As Ishchenko notes, Steven Solnick is correct when he states that theft of the state by Soviet officials meant more than theft of its resources. In terms of restructuring social reproduction, it meant social collapse. Economic insecurity resulted in dramatic decreases in life expectancy at birth and increases in pre-mature deaths. According to Goskomstat, the Russian GDP’s decline was 60% steeper during the early 1990s than the United States’ GDP decline during the Great Depression. 

By the 2000s, the state’s capacity to fulfil duties of the state such as pensions, healthcare, benefits – thanks to economic recovery after 1998 fuelled by oil profits – had recovered somewhat. This indicated a break with the explicitly neoliberal economic policy of the 1990s. As “insiders” or “political capitalists” were consolidated under Putin, the boundary between state and capital in Russia became increasingly blurred. 

Social policy research has shown that state interventionism and pro-natalism have become central features of the regime in response to the chaos of shock therapy of the 1990s. Scholars such as Anna Tarasenko, Linda Cook, Ilya Matveev and Anastasia Novkunskaya, among others, have shown that monetisation of welfare benefits, decline in state spending, establishment of public-private partnerships in service delivery, and other austerity measures coincided with the legal institutionalisation of traditional values centred on the heterosexual family. 

The narrative emphasising how the hybrid nature of the Russian state – neoliberal regulatory and statist interventionist – led it down the path to war in Ukraine, offers a fragmented (and misleading) explanation of reality. The problem is that the ideological and political features of the state are interpreted as exercised for purposes outside of capitalist accumulation – be it nationalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia – conceived as separate systems of oppression from class. 

Instead, I argue that the implementation of interventionist pronatalist social policies is key to the Putin regime’s project, including the militarisation of the state through the war in Ukraine and maintaining neoliberal capitalism. 

Social policy and citizenship in Putin’s Russia

Following the logic of rent that Ishchenko describes, we are witnessing the reconfiguration of citizenship in Russia, attached to debt-based financial inclusion encouraged by the state through pronatalist social policy. This form of dispossession is an extension of post-Soviet neoliberal social policy couched in Soviet-era discourse of state protection of mothers and children. This speaks to the lingering belief that the state should be responsible for welfare provision and maintain an expanded public sector.

From the Maternity Capital benefit (2007), a pronatalist bank voucher intended for recent mothers-recipients and mostly used for mortgage down payments, to the more recent Order of the Mother-Heroine (2022), awarded to women who have given birth and raised ten or more children, this was introduced against the background of conscripted young men dying in Ukraine, to War Mortgages (2022) given to soldiers at low interest rates.

Russian social benefits schemes reflect the merging of finance and social policy against the continued impoverishment of the public sector, precarisation of labour, child poverty, and gendered violence. Yet, more than a process of continued neoliberal privatisation, Putin-era pronatalist social policy has become an intricate mechanism in which state benefits, as opposed to being a direct, state-provided form of social provisioning, are fed through circuits of financial capital for profit (in particular for Russian banks and construction companies) – expropriating public goods and working-class households. 

Without the imposition of fiscal burdens that universal welfare provision or social citizenship would involve for the state, debt-based inclusion normalises reliance on credit to meet basic needs such as housing, created sense of social improvement through individual, often mother-targeted provision attached to Russian citizenship. Since the mid-2000s, there has been a clear trend of skyrocketing increases in household indebtedness, particularly through mortgage loans, coinciding with an increase in child poverty the impoverishment of multiple-child households and lone-mother/grandmother households. 

The state promotes both the Maternity Capital benefit and War Mortgages programme for soldiers as the solutions to the housing crisis in Russia. Advertisements targeting impoverished regions show smiling Russian families who are grateful to their husbands, brothers, and sons for their service to the motherland and for the opportunity to secure a cheaper mortgage. Indeed, these programmes serve as mechanisms for recruiting working-class people, as military service provides an opportunity for dispossessed households to reproduce themselves. 

In this way, social reproduction is increasingly privatised and its responsibility downloaded on to women through a kind of militarisation of motherhood. The family, literally, becomes a direct site of financial accumulation feeding the militarisation of the Russian state. 

The institutionalisation of the “Russian traditional family” model is based on the criminalisation and exclusion from welfare provisions and full citizenship of LGBTQ+ people and migrant workers. Feminist theorist Jennifer Suchland’s term “heteronationalism” helps to describe the construction of Russian nationalism embodied in pronatalist, protectionist and ostensibly developmentalist direction of state discourse that supports the neoliberal regime of accumulation. 

In multiple interviews, officials like Elena Mizulina as Head of State Duma Committee on Children and Families in Russia, has explicitly linked the supposed traditional Russian value of having large families to the preservation of the nation against its internal and external enemies. Labour migrants from Central Asian countries are frequently depicted as sources of crime, public health risks, and drug trafficking. The racist policing of migrants occurs in both the sphere of production and social reproduction, as illustrated by the expressed anxiety over pregnant undocumented women utilising Russian public healthcare, and concerns regarding the children of undocumented migrants in Moscow’s state-subsidised public pre-schools/kindergartens. 

It is not coincidental that, during the first year of Maternity Capital benefit, on March 26, 2008, Putin’s United Russia introduced an annual holiday called the “Day of Family, Love and Fidelity”. 

It is also not coincidental that while the Russian troops engage in extraction and land grabbing in the mineral-rich lands of Southern and Eastern Ukraine, the Russian state passes legislation expanding the 2013 law on prohibition on the spread of “gay propaganda” among minors now to apply to all ages. Just as labour and socialist organisers are incarcerated in Russia. 

Contrary to Western depictions of Russia’s otherness or hybridity, as Suchland explains: “Political homophobia and heteronationalism are not just measures of illiberalism in Russia, but symptoms of a post-Soviet imperial project that is not opposed to Eurocentrism but entangled with it.” 

Yet, if the political is also economic, then Russian heteronationalism’s entanglement with Eurocentrism also implies an entanglement with global capitalism.  

Russian capitalism is political, and is as normal as global capitalism itself — which produced it. 

olena

Olena Lyubchenko

Olena Lyubchenko is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at York University, Toronto, and an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Her research and teaching draws on Marxist critique of political economy and focuses on social reproduction, primitive accumulation, and the making and transformation of the Soviet Union in global context. She writes about neoliberal restructuring, the financialisation of social reproduction, racialisation and citizenship in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine, as well as the regulation of labour relations in settler-colonial Canada. Olena is an editor at LeftEast and Midnight Sun Magazine. She is a co-editor of the volume Change and Continuity: Canadian Political Economy in the New Millennium (McGill-Queens, 2019). She is also an Alameda affiliate.
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