Streetwise Professor

March 26, 2019

The NYT Figures Out That Putin Is Not An Omnipotent Dr. Evil. Well, I Guess 12 Years Late Is Better Than Never.

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:35 pm

The image of Vladimir Putin as an all-powerful mastermind was central to the Russia Collusion Hoax. In this telling, the omnipotent and omnipresent Vova, secure in his lair in Moscow, could manipulate at will the electoral process in the most powerful country in history. His power, devious intelligence, and malign purpose made it especially reprehensible and dangerous for Trump to collude with him, and the image of the Putin evil mastermind made collusion with him a grave threat to the republic, in a way totally different from, say, assorted Chinese boodlers boosting Bill Clinton.

The entire Russian Collusion Hoax was farcical to me from the beginning, and this grotesque exaggeration of Putin’s power and influence was the most farcical part of the charade. It was particularly annoying to hear about it from idiots who hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to Russia since, well, ever, and who when they did weigh in on Russia it was to slam Mitt Romney for calling it a threat, and to chortle at Obama’s snarky response to Romney’s alarums.

Put simply, most of these people who have been running around with their hair on fire about Russia since, come to think of it, the minute that Hillary conceded defeat and needed an excuse, couldn’t find the place on a map, despite the fact it is the biggest country on earth. But all of a sudden they were experts on all things Putin and all things Russia.

Perhaps in a signal to the hysterics that they should back off, the NYT ran an oped titled “How Powerful is Putin Really?” The answer: pretty much the same one I gave 12 plus years ago, and repeatedly–not very. Because Russia is not that powerful, and because Putin’s main role is to be an intermediary in wars between completing clans in the security forces and business, rather than to be a grandmaster moving inanimate chess pieces around the board.

This is comic gold:

The gulf between what Mr. Putin says and what happens in Russia raises a fundamental question about the nature of his rule after more than 18 years at the pinnacle of an authoritarian system: Is Mr. Putin really the omnipotent leader whom his critics attack and his own propagandists promote? Or does he sit atop a state that is, in fact, shockingly ramshackle, a system driven more by the capricious and often venal calculations of competing bureaucracies and interest groups than by Kremlin diktats?

I won’t keep you in suspense as to the answer. Hell, if you have been reading here anytime since around 2007, you know the answer. But then again, if you read me you probably haven’t been drinking the NYT Kool-aid, and won’t need them to tell you the answer 12 years too late.

If you read the rest of the article, you will see a description that echoes exactly the one I first applied to Russia in April, 2007: “a natural state.” As I quoted North, Weingast, and Wallis:

natural state is a specific way of structuring political and economic systems so that the economic rents created by limited entry are available to secure credible commitments among politically powerful groups. Potential rivals in a natural state stop fighting (or fight less when the economic rents they enjoy depend on continued existence of the sate and of social order. Natural states limit economic entry to create rents and then use those rents to credibly commit powerful groups to support the state. In other words, natural states use the economic system as a tool to solidify the stability of the ruling coalition.

I also quoted Celeste Wallander:

Patrimonial authoritarianism is a political system based on holding power in order to create, access, and distribute rents. It is well known that Russia is deeply corrupt, but corruption in the Russian system of patrimonial authoritarianism is not merely a feature of the system; it is essential to the very functioning of political power. The political system is based on the political control of economic resources in order to enrich those within patron-client clans. The patron remains in power by rewarding clients, and the clients are rewarded by supporting their patron. The patron requires support from his clients, and he must access and distribute rents for that support. Without the creation and control of rents, political power disappears. At the top of the political system, Putin manages relations among competing patron-client clans headed by top government and business figures, such as Development and Trade Minister German Gref, Deputy Prime Minister and Gazprom chairman Dmitry Medvedev, Gazprom president Alexei Miller, and Igor Sechin, deputy head of the presidential administration and chairman of Rosneft. Each of these individuals in turn has his own set of clients, who are in turn patrons of their own clans, and so on, creating a complex web of relationships that sustain political power and distribute patronage rents.

The basic point of the analysis was that of course someone like Putin is powerful within such a system, but he is not all powerful. Further, his power derives from his ability to intermediate between independent sources of power within Russia. The main purpose of the state in Russia is to organize theft, and divide the spoils. The main purpose of Putin is to keep that process from devolving into violent chaos.

Put differently, I’ve often emphasized the deinstitutionalized, highly personalized nature of the Russian state. The personalism is a bug, not a feature, and inherently limits the power of the person at the top. It is a great mistake to confuse the prominence of the public face of a shambolic state with actual power. Institutions are necessary to generate national power, either domestically or abroad. The power of deinstitutionalized state is inherently constrained.

But especially post-8 November, 2016, the left and the media and Hillary needed a figure to personify evil, and to tie him to Trump, so the reality of Russia and Putin and Putinism–which is pretty plain to see if you actually look–was deliberately ignored, and in its place our “elite” became fixated on a cartoonish Dr. Evil figure in a way that would make the most crazed 1950s Bircher blush.

These are people who fell for the scary wizard and his pyrotechnics, and paid no attention to the little man behind the curtain. Some because they were fools. Some–the worst of them, and the most powerful–because it advanced their political agenda.

So I say to the NYT: Bravo! Better 12 years late then never! But this should be a lesson: don’t pay the slightest bit of attention to those Bozos, because their news and editorial “judgments” are driven by a political and ideological bias that is impervious to readily observable realities.

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  1. Great stuff.

    The question then is: how does a society move from a natural, de-institutionalised state, to one in which institutions are sufficiently powerful to restrain predation on the general population?

    And then, next is: having gotten there, how do we stay there, given the behaviour that we see emerging around us, and from which emerged the wall-to-wall idiocy of ‘Russian collusion’ in the first place as these people tried to rationalise their loss of power and also to dare I say act treasonously, or seditiously, to get it back?

    Comment by Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — March 27, 2019 @ 10:48 am

  2. They’ll have changed their mind by tomorrow, or whenever the tactical requirements of the moment demand it. They rely on their readers to forget everything they have previously read, and they are right.

    Comment by Rob — March 27, 2019 @ 1:20 pm

  3. You mean The Walter Duranty Times? Yeah, they have a solid reputation where Russia is concerned.

    Comment by Ivan — March 27, 2019 @ 3:08 pm

  4. @GSRLB–Good question. North, Wallis, and Weingast pose the question. They don’t have a definitive answer, but to say that the transition is fraught, and fails more frequently than it succeeds. The natural state equilibrium is an equilibrium for a reason: powerful forces keep it there. They identify some necessary conditions, but no sufficient ones.

    The most clearcut example of a transition is England, post-1688. But it in many respects is the exception that proves the rule.

    My biggest fear is that the US is devolving to natural statehood. Part of my reason for focusing on Russia was to provide a cautionary example for the US (and the West generally). Alas, I don’t think the message is catching. The recent travesties are a chilling demonstration of that decay.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 27, 2019 @ 5:46 pm

  5. A Russian Collusion Hoax, really? The simple fact is that if the evidence falls short for a criminal conspiracy prosecution then is probably more likely that Putin has done his job well. Doesn’t anyone find it strange that none of the claims made by Christopher Steele 2 years ago have been disproven and most of them have been confirmed. But still some of your leading politicians want to imprison him – the former head of MI6 Russia. Even if you ignored all of the evidence for Russian meddling in the US election, to believe that they would not be motivated and prepared to do so you would have to ignore all the events over the last 12 years in Ukraine, Moldova, Estonia, Montengro, France, Brexit and the perceived US involvement in the 2012 Russian elections. Honestly, from the outside it looks like your country has done most of the work for Putin and that is profoundly sad.

    Comment by Kristian Lande — March 28, 2019 @ 3:19 am

  6. @ Prof

    Thanks for this, will follow up the names you provided.

    Now – Weimarish as ‘the current year’ is – seems as good a time as ever.

    I remember reading somewhere that, in England some time in the 18th century, possibly under Walpole, the corruption among the political class, which had been endemic, just stopped. Whether it was a top-down decision, or whether they realised that they could get richer by working together collectively at their empire than scrabbling against one another, I don’t know. But yes a transition that in time turned out to be hugely beneficial for everyone in their society.

    Re. the recent travesties: to quote a well-known quip-maker – ‘this is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end; but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning’; the ball has now bounced nicely in Trump’s forehand court, and, well …

    Comment by Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — March 28, 2019 @ 9:47 am

  7. There’s a lot to be said for feudalism, done well. Unfortunately the Russians don’t seem to have reached that stage yet. Maybe they’re waiting for their Henry II, because Putin ain’t him.

    Comment by Recusant — March 28, 2019 @ 1:44 pm

  8. @GSRLB–I think you may be thinking of Douglas Allen’s The Institutional Revolution.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 28, 2019 @ 8:06 pm

  9. Thanks Prof.

    Comment by Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — March 29, 2019 @ 3:59 am

  10. SWP: thank you for yet another pithy commentary, and especially for your always insightful Russia reality check. But why are you being so kind to AOC? Does she deserve a rebuttal to her arrogant millennial drivel or should we ignore her and stop feeding fuel into her media-created faux-celeb credentials??? I was in a Switzerland train kiosk last week and caught a cover page of “View” magazine with AOC on the cover. I had to snal a picture to later translate the caption. It read: “AOC: Trumps machtigste Gegnerin…Amerikas groBe Hoffnung – Wie eine 29-Jahrige geschickt den US-Presidenten mit seinem eigenen Waffen schlagt” which Google Translate tells me is roughly, “Trumps most powerful opponent … America’s great hope – How a 29-year-old cleverly beats the US president with his own weapons”. I want to vomit. But why am I surprised? I should know better.

    Comment by Patrick Woody — April 3, 2019 @ 3:43 pm

  11. @Patrick–thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.

    You ask an interesting question. I vacillate on that. On the one hand, I think she is a walking, talking (continuously) illustration of Twain’s dictum about remaining silent and letting people think you are an idiot rather than speaking and removing all doubt. But . . . unfortunately, there are enough idiots out there who need her idiocy pointed out, chapter and verse. Since she isn’t going away anytime soon, I am sure that I will have to get out the lumber and deliver some whacks. As a public service!

    Comment by cpirrong — April 4, 2019 @ 8:41 am

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