Friday, August 04, 2006

Have things got worse in Russia?

In a recent comment to the posting about Cuba, SWP member Redaspie, queried whether there had been a drop in the standards of living in the former USSR, and the other Comecon countries. This is an interesting question, because whether or not there has been a social collapse in Russia is relevant to the debate of whether or not Russia was indeed state capitalist. It is also pertinent to Dave Broder' of the AWL who is arguing in the same thread of comments that he wouldn't be upset if the Cuban government was replaced by free market capitalism.

Using as sources those well known apologists for Stalinism,
Unicef, the World Bank and the BBC, we find that the world bank reported in 2000 that in the USSR overall incomes have dropped by 50%. In some regions, such as the Caucasus and central Asia, over half the population now live in absolute poverty - defined as living on an income of $2 per day or less.

Unicef report 18 million children on less than $2 per day, 60 million children in poverty.
Unicef reports; "In Central Asian countries less than half of 15-to-18-year-olds now attend secondary school. Ten years ago more than two-thirds attended. " There were also at least one million displaced as refugess by war within the borders of the former USSR.

World bank: "
Since the poverty levels peaked in 1999 at 41.5%, poverty was cut in half by 2002 to 19.6%. About 30 million people have improved their financial standing, however the number of people in poverty is still high - every fifth Russian lives well below the official poverty line. According to the World Bank, the most vulnerable group was the rural population. About 30.4% of the rural population lives in poverty, while 15.7% of the urban population is poor. Children under 16 have a higher incidence of poverty, about 25%. According to the report, the North Caucasus, South Siberia and parts of Central Russia are the poorest regions in Russia."

Alexandra Ochirova, the chairperson of the Chamber’s committee (A Kremlin initiated committee) on social development said 20 million Russians live below the subsistence level, and this accounts for 15 or more percent the population. More specifically, one Russian in seven cannot meet even his or her basic demands for food and clothing.
Poverty in Russia is very special for the fact it embraces not only separate sections of the able-bodied population, but more importantly, the ones who have employment,” Ochirova said. “These are mostly workers on government payroll, as well as children aged younger than 16 years old, the disabled and pensioners,” she said. But the most dangerous type of impoverishment is poverty among single mothers. “It’s neediness reproducing neediness,” Ochirova said. A gap in population’s earnings remains huge, too, as the incomes of 80% population decrease all the time while those of the remaining 20% continue growing"

"Russia is a unique country where poverty strikes the working population,” says Mikhail Shmakov, the president of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions. “Poverty is multiplying since the government, the country’s biggest employer, curbs a growth of wages,”

In a report to US Congress on economic state of Russia; “In January 2005, the Russian government monetized many previously in-kind social benefits for retirees, military personnel, and state employees. The cash payments, however, only partly compensated for the lost benefits. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced widespread economic dislocation and a drop of close to 50% in GDP. Conditions worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States impoverished much of the population, some 15% of which is still living below the government’s official (very low) poverty level. Russia is also plagued by environmental degradation and ecological catastrophes of staggering proportions; the near-collapse of the health system; sharp declines in life expectancy and the birth rate; and widespread organized crime and corruption. The population has fallen by over 5 million in the past decade, despite net in-migration of 5 million from other former Soviet republics.”

Another interesting source is the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration: “Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, that country’s economic and social system worked in a practical sense — meaning most people had a place to live and food to eat. Although standards of living were below those in the West, particularly in housing, daily life was predictable. The Soviet leadership was legitimately able to say that their form of socialism had succeeded in virtually eliminating the kind of poverty that existed in Czarist Russia. Russian citizens now live in different times. The country’s transformation to a more open economic system has created, temporarily at least, a large, new group of people in poverty.”

The recent TV series following 21 year olds from the former USSR (you know one of those progs that follow people every 7 years) was heartbreaking. Whole towns that previously had viable industries now at a subsistence level. There was an interesting report recently on the BBC about how there has been a disastrous collapse of bio-diversity in Siberia, as in eastern Russia people have had to return to hunting for basic subsistence.

In the former DDR, comprehenisve education lost, rent controlled apartments lost, full employment lost. abortion rights reduced, full employment lost. Former citizens of the DDR discriminated against as their academic qualifications not recognised, paid lower wages than Wessies, etc. Yugoslavia has been consumed by ethnic conflict.

Even if we take one of the economic success stories, Lithuania, we find that country is the biggest source of women traded as slaves into prostitution, according to the
International labour organisation. Hungary has become a centre for exploitation sex tourism.

Whe comrades talk about the restoration of capitalism in the former Comecon countries as just a shift in the mode of exploitation, or a "step sideways", perhaps they should look at the real consequences?


Redaspie said...

Hmm I was expecting something rather more conclusive that what you essayed here. The problem is that even if you could prove that there was a dramatic widening of the gap between rich and poor following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was also a dramatic widening of the gap in Western societies as well in the gap from the '70s onwards. What you've showed doesn't even show that - it shows that following the collapse of the entire soviet political, social and economic structures there was massive dislocation, increased poverty and so on. But you could also argue that the collapse of the Fascist regimes in Europe in the '40s led to the same thing. Things falling apart in the way they did in the USSR often does lead to chaos. I can't see how this shows that the Soviet system was in any way an improvement on Western-style capitalism.

AN said...

Redaspie, don't move the gaol posts. Your original point was: " seem to remember people queueing up in their hundreds for rotten sausages in the Soviet era. To what extent things have actually gotten worse in the USSR since the collapse of 'Communism' is I think something of a matter of debate."

That is what i have addressed. That is a dofferent question to whether or not "the Soviet system was in any way an improvement on Western-style capitalism."

AN said...

and Redaspie, do you then conceed by saying "Things falling apart in the way they did in the USSR often does lead to chaos."

that your original point was wrong that "To what extent things have actually gotten worse in the USSR since the collapse of 'Communism' is I think something of a matter of debate."

Even within an unamobiguously capitalist context such as the closure of MG Rover socialists oppose the disruption and impact on people's lives. So even in that context all socialists should be opposed to the wholsesale dismantling of the economy and social fabric of the USSR.

Redaspie said...

Actually I've just realised that my phrase 'get worse' might be interpreted in different ways. There's certainly a good deal more political freedom in Russia than there was under the Soviet Union. I mean, for instance, workers who go on strike don't face being shot by the security forces in usual circumstances.

Derek Wall said...

I think this was from the Economist in 2004....there is no doubt that the collapse of Soviet Union was a catastrophe, I was no fan of the Soveit Union, human rights are dire as well, Putin is after all an ex-KGB ban,mostNGOs are being banned,etc.

I don't think this is a debate,the Results are obvious, high prices will be raising gnp but I think Chelsea rather then Moscow will benefit.

In the former Soviet Union the creation of a market economy has led to catastrophe. In an article subtitled ‘Russia appears to be committing suicide’, the Economist (2 October) notes that since 1989 the countries population has plunged by several million and is projected to fall from 147 million today to 120 million in 2030. Declining fertility, violence, sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis and alcoholism are just symptoms ‘of the long, dark night of the Russian soul ushered in by the disorienting collapse of communism’.

Redaspie said...

Wha? A Green Party member defending the USSR? What gives?

Anyway, the argument that the Soviet Union should have been supported because its collapse led to social crisis is not much of an argument. That could be equally applied to *any* political system. In fact, the danger of social collapse might actually be an argument against socialist revolution!

Derek Wall said...

I am not defending the soviet union, I am attacking marketisation....don't worry there isn't a split between the Tankies and the post-modern euros in the GPEW, we are all for ecology, peace, social justice and grassroots democracy...

AN said...

Redaspie - I challenge you to find a credible account of strikers being shot in the USSR in recent decades. ;o)

I also wnder whether in Russia itself there is meaningful increase in real democratic control, as there is a highly censored and controlled press, and economic power is very tightly controlled by 11 billionnaires, who are not even acocuntable to Putin.

Redaspie said...

Well I don't think there were that many strikes to start off with. I suppose you're going to use that as a reason to start talking about how the reason for this was because the workers were so happy and contented under good old Uncle Joe?

AN said...

Reaspie - it is absurd to suggest that just becasue i am correcting your factiual inaccuracies about the USSR, that i am a defender of that system or of the corrupt bureucratic rule of the CPSU.

My undersatding is that economic strikes were not that uncommon.

Redaspie said...

Erm, no, actually you're not just correcting my 'factual inaccuries', you are trying to defend the USSR. I note the last sentence of your post on the subject. Your argument is clearly that the collapse of the USSR made things worse, and that that collapse was not a 'sideways shift' from one form of exploitation to another (which I think it was). I'm no USSR expert, but I'm under no illusions that it was any kind of 'workers state', deformed or otherwise.

AN said...

Redaspie - what you said was: " I seem to remember people queueing up in their hundreds for rotten sausages in the Soviet era. To what extent things have actually gotten worse in the USSR since the collapse of 'Communism' is I think something of a matter of debate."

This whole post was to demonstrate that things have in fact got worse, and that is not a question for debate. That is not defending the USSR, that is simply correcting your factual inaccuracy that it was debatable whether or not things had "got worse".

Unless you Are in fact disputing that a disastrous social collapse is "worse"?

And you seem to be in a bit of a muddle - if you think it has been a shift from one form of exploitation to another, which you say you think it was - then doesn't that contradict the idea that it was previoulsy a capitalist form of exploitation? (That point of mine was directed against the bureucratic collectivists of the AWL - not the state cap argument)

Redaspie said...

No, I was paraphrasing the last line of *your* post. I believe the phrase you use was 'a shift in the mode of exploitation' and disputed this.

AN said...

The terminology:

as just "a shift in the mode of exploitation", has been used by the AWL, who believe there has been a shift from bureaucratic collectivism to capitalism (with a sub-text that that is an improvement?)

the expression a "step sideways", has been used by the SWP (specifically Chris Harman)- implying no fundamental change in the mode of exploitation.

Are you saying that you think there was a shift in the mode of exploitation, or aren't you?

Redaspie said...

(Bloody hell, posted this yesterday, haloscan ate it up. Let's start again...)

This is the reason why I dislike debates of this nature, because they usually end up trading bit of jargon like 'bureaucratic collectivism' and 'deformed workers' state'. This is probably the reason why the LCR in France stopped talking about the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' in its literature.

In layman's terms, then, my view is this. Under Soviet communism, the means of production etc were owned and controlled by the state, who then had a monopoly over the exploitation of the workers, and the profits thereof. With the collapse of the USSR, and the introduction of shock therapy, control of the economy passed to private profiteers (who were frequently members of the old nomenklatura I'm led to believe) and they took over the exploitation of the workers. Whether you want to call that a shift in the mode of exploitation, or a 'step sideways' is entirely up to you.

AN said...

In the former USSR itself (different in say Hungary) the old nomenklatura have not ended up as the oners, in fact I believe none of the 11 billlionnaires who own nearly all of russia today were leading members of the CPSU.

the terminology ay be old hat, and inaccurate even, but it is technical shorthand for underlyinging analyses of how the economy and society worked.

you see your explanation actualy explains nothing about how the USSR worked, what the causes of its colapse were, nor indeed proviade any guidence on whetehr socialists today should for example defend the Cuban system from capitalist restoration or not.

Louisefeminista said...

Redaspie:"and the profits thereof"
Re USSR: Where were the profits..?

I don't understand why using so-called jargon ("state capitalism", "degenerated workers state" and so on) is unhelpful. In my opinion, it is opposite. In layperson's terms, what made the USSR tick?

Capitalism restoration in the USSR was a retrograde step. There were shockwaves across the left when it collapsed.

That's why what happened in USSR can provide guidance to the situation in Cuba.

Of course Cuba has to be defended against capitalist restoration. Control has to be wrested away from the bureaucracy yet the social gains kept (free health care provision and so on)

AN said...

Over the issue of jargon, I think Redaspie both has and hasn't got a point.

he is wrong to say that the specialised intellectual deiscipline of marxism should not develop its own specialised vocabulary. There are competing theories, it is correct they have names, and we are quite justifieds in using that vocabulary in debate

(although that does sometimes cause problems for someone like me who thinks all the theories are inadequate)

But where he does have a point is that the names are not actually very heplful in describing the content of the theories.

So for example the theoruy ogf a degenerated workerrs state, was a concpet much more easy to get accross at the time of mass communist parties who popularised the idea that the USSR was actaully a workers state.

Probably a better description would be a "bureacratised society in transition between capitalism and socialism.". I think Mandel does use a formulation similar to this in some writings.

Louisefeminista said...

"But where he does have a point is that the names are not actually very heplful in describing the content of the theories."

I take your point on that especially as I think that deformed workers state, for example, isn't very helpful in explaining the political situation in Cuba.

AN said...

Yeah, and it alos doesn't get over the fact that a deformed/degenerate wrkers state is a society in transition.

But the very simplicity of the term "state capitalism" causes a different problem, thta comrades think they understand it when they don't

Louisefeminista said...

Yes, I agree, about degenerated and deformed workers states being in transition.

Pardon my bias, but state capitalism always struck me as sloppy and opportunistic thinking to say the least.

Redaspie said...

"you see your explanation actualy explains nothing about how the USSR worked, what the causes of its colapse were, nor indeed proviade any guidence on whetehr socialists today should for example defend the Cuban system from capitalist restoration or not."

Well, actually I don't think any analysis of whether the Soviet Union was state capitalist or not provides any guidance for whether Cuba should be supported anyway. They're just two completely different situations. The USSR was an imperialist power that subjugated half of Europe for nigh on fifty years. Cuba is a country in Latin America standing up against US dominance - for that reason and that reason alone it deserves some support.

AN said...

redaspie - when you say "for that reason and that reason alone it deserves some support"

You are syaing that the social system in Cuba is not better than the social system in Haiti, or Columbia?

Redaspie said...

No, I'm not. Mind you Saddam Hussein had the best welfare system in the Middle East prior to the sanctions, so I've been told by Iraqi activists, and I'd never call his regime a progressive one.

AN said...

so to rephrase the questuion there is no difference between the Ciuban government and Saddam Hussein's?

Redaspie said...

Oh give over. Now you're just putting words into my mouth. I never said that and you know it.

Really, I'm fed up with this whole issue. It started simply because I questioned the assumption at the heart of a statement in a previous posting here (so long ago I've forgotten what about) that the Soviet system was an improvement on Western-style capitalism. I remain unconvinced. Anyone can point to figures showing that there was a social crisis following the collapse of a regime. By that argument you could make a semi-plausible case for the Tsarist regime being better than the Bolshevik one! A slightly long term view is needed, and recent statistics point to a sharp recovery - according to Wikipedia the average salary has increased by a quarter in the past year. And your 18% below the poverty line makes no difference if not compared to the poverty line percentage back in Soviet times.

AN said...

At the risk of being tedius, you seem to be arguing contradictory things here. My questions about Iraq and Cuba was not facetious, there were superficial similarities between pre-sanctions iraq and Cuba. i am just trying to find out what you actually think.

If you say that we need to compare the poverty level now with the poverty level in soviet era, then you sem to be still disputing that overall living standards have fallen.

But then you admit there has been social collapse.

It is a sleight of hand to say that this was about whether "the Soviet system was an improvement on Western-style capitalism". You quesried whether life had got woorse in the former USSR. Well for most people is has, but for some reason you won't acceppt that fact, which is atested to allmost universallly.

increasing average income is neither here nor there in answering the contention, becasue
i) income inequality has vastly increased
ii) any figues relating to the Russian economy will not take into account the near complate social collapse in parts of the Ukraine, Moldava, and the Turkic republics, that in the USSR had comparable standard of living with much of russia itself.

the qestion is not about better or worse, but whter it was fundmantally different or the same.

Obvioulsy there were huge differences between various Comecon countries depending on their government, so Romania was god awful, but the DDR was progressive in many respects.