Navalny’s Neoliberalism

by Sean Guillory August 01, 2013

Protest rally in Moscow. Photo by BogomolovPL.

It’s no surprise that Alexei Navalny has come under the political microscope since his mayoral bid took off. Little is known of Navalny’s actual politics, and what is, has driven a wedge into the Russian opposition. There is universal support for Navalny the anti-corruption crusader, the victim of political repression, and street and internet activist. But Navalny as an electoral candidate? That is something else entirely. Can he be trusted as a politician? What dangers do his growing cult of personality present? Is Navalny part of a larger movement or is the movement merely Navalny? What about his nationalism? This last question has generated the most reticence toward Navalny. Even some Western commentators are urging caution. Recently, Anatol Lieven warned that Navalny’s “Russian ethnic chauvinism,” “anti-immigrant sentiment” with its “distinctly anti-Muslim edge,” and his connections to extreme right-wing Russian groups make him “closer to Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch populist, than to the hero of some western imaginings.”

Navalny is a right-wing populist. No doubt. But I would submit he’s more of an American variety than a European facsimile. His xenophobia comes with an anti-elitist élan tinged with a libertarian distrust of big government. If Navalny ran in a US election, he’d find common cause with the Tea Party. He’d make an excellent Fox News pundit if he added flamboyancy to his abrasiveness. And this greater affinity with American rather than European rightwing populism is visible in another, but much less discussed, aspect of Navalny’s politics: his neoliberalism. Navalny’s terse statements about social and economic policy speak to a faith in a world in which individuals with unfettered access to information set in a marketplace will allocate resources rationally and efficiently. Peppered throughout this base philosophy is a litany of neoliberal buzzwords: transparency, competition, openness, accountability, choice, and access. In sum, markets are the most efficient mechanism for governing social life.

Navalny’s neoliberalism is less apparent than his nationalism. It comes with no controversial slurs and videos comparing Muslims to cockroaches. His neoliberalism rattles no educated urbanite sensibilities. It sits silently behind many good common sense proposals. It, along with his democratic principles and war against corruption, makes him attractive to liberals inside and outside Russia. In fact, the only place where you’ll find Navalny’s name mentioned alongside neoliberalism is among the Russian left, who are currently debating their position on him. For the socialist left, Navalny’s nationalism and neoliberalism are two big strikes against him. A recent statement by the Russian Socialist Movement called Navalny’s platform a “prime example of rightist demagogy” which would lead to “further class segregation.” Dmitry Zykov, who writes for Grani.ru, simply called the platform “right-wing populist fuckery.” Another RSMer, Igor Dmitriev, played up the fact that Sergei Guriev, the recently exiled liberal economist, wrote Navalny’s economic plan. For Dmitriev, Navalny was nothing less than Yeltsin reincarnate. “Navalny’s economic guru is Yeltsin’s—they are all representatives of the liberal school. They are all wards of [Evgenii] Yasin. Then it was Egor Gaidar, now it’s Sergei Guriev. There is no principled difference between them,” he wrote. In an excellent article, N+1 editor Keith Gessen, who is connected to the Russian Left, wrote there’s a lot about Navalny to be genuinely excited about, but that excitement also comes with many difficult political compromises. I too share Gessen’s ambivalence.

As Navalny’s himself has stated, his economic program is simple: “Don’t lie and don’t steal.” Simple enough. It’s a short and sweet slogan, and if Lenin proved anything, slogans are vital to political struggle. Corruption is one of the most pervasive maladies of Russian life. But behind that moral adage are solutions that could easily be cast off as naive if it wasn’t for the presuppositions behind them. For behind a belief that if only good people were in power (“honest power” according to his program. In English translation) is a technocratic, even technological fetishism which holds that transparency, competition, choice, and accountability are the keys to raising life in Moscow to European standards. His election platform is suffused with the language of transparency—the word is used sixteen times—and this openness to decision making, budgets, pricing, and transactions will somehow keep those in power accountable to its citizenry. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. But as critics of neoliberal transparency argue, such measures are mostly a means to discipline politics to the market, not the other way around. The public good is measured by the fulfillment of technocratic rationalism through the decrease of waste, costs, and bureaucratic procedure, not whether it meets the actual needs of the citizenry. Indeed, Navalny’s program speaks of curing budget inefficiency, replacing an inefficient system, and battling ineffective expenditure. Efficiency through the allocation of resources based on market mechanisms becomes an end in itself.

Navalny is not wholly against the social state. His proposals will, however, inevitably result in its minimization.

He calls for an increase in state funding of public services, especially for Moscow’s downtrodden. The market will determine the fate of everyone else in regard to utilities, healthcare, education and public safety. Guided by the principle, “money follows the patient,” Navalny suggests instituting market relations to social services. His proposal for education, for example, is right out of the American school privatization playbook. Funding will be tied to performance measured according to results on the state standardized test. Education will be subject to competition because parents will be able to choose their children’s school. One can foresee the endgame. Poorly performing schools will get their budgets slashed. Their resources will decrease. Performance will nosedive further. Parents will flee to better schools. Poor schools will be shuttered. The neoliberal principle is in full force. It’s duplication in health care and public safety is not hard to imagine. Navalny even wants the city to employ a private security firm to patrol the streets “to maintain order.” Since “money follows the patient,” the market ultimately decides the rational allocation of resources logically to those with the most money. Those with less means will have to scrape by on the “social minimum” provided by the city/state.

In the end, Navalny’s plan is rooted in the idealization of social reality. The efficacy of transparency as a means to improve social life is predicated upon the fallacy that when presented with full information individuals will make rational decisions. Yet, history has proven otherwise. Navalny’s political citizen is shorn of their psychological, cultural, economic, social, and historical environment. This ahistorical and asocial rational figure is made even more puzzling considering Navalny’s own irrational affinity to Russian nationalism. But that is the irony, if not contradiction within Navalny’s politics. As Ilya Ponomarev reminded us months ago, Navalny is a “nationalist and a neoliberal.”