Social Inequality as a Political Problem

One of the most significant problems in terms of its effect on the political process is social inequality1 The article is based on the materials of the research project conducted with the support of the Russian Humanitarian Academic Fund (grant N 07 03 00074a).1. People positions and opportunities as well as their civil engagement directly depend on the differences in their economic situation and social status. Social inequality emanates from the economy, but it also has its political dimension affecting the extent of the citizens participation in solving common problems. Social inequality reproduces itself in the political and legal inequality that in its turn impacts the economic and social relations. This problem reaches its particular acuteness when social inequality spills over and is extrapolated to politics. Those who are on the top and who are wealthy try to secure their dominant position in the state, whereas those who found themselves “at the bottom” and are burdened with poverty fall out of the political process.

The classic of liberalism J.St.Mill argued that poverty is a no less efficient instrument of the political oppression than the force. “The poor are right in thinking that this type of evil is on the equal terms with its other types that the humanity has long been fighting against”2 See Kymlicka 2002: 124.2. While under despotism inclusion of the masses into politics is inhibited through direct violence, within many democracies it happens through the poverty of the broad layers of their population.

The social-economic advantages of the big capital such as access to property, high incomes and key positions in the social hierarchy are surprisingly easily convertible into political influence. Providing financial support to the parties and civil organizations, uniting with the ruling coalition, creating powerful lobbyist structures, manipulating mass media, bribing bureaucrats and judges, forming semi-legal and illegal pressure groups are only some of them within the huge set of such conversion tools.

As a consequence of such transformations, the political sphere faces strong antidemocratic tendencies. The social polarization takes place: apathy and passiveness concentrate on its one pole, whereas the other pole is filled with an aspiration to monopolize and close the sphere of decision-making from the public. The poor layers of the society marginalize, which provokes illegal protest forms. Being deprived of the opportunity to articulate and protect their interests in public, they constitute the social base of the political extremism. The moral traditions of the social justice and common good and thus the social unity are being destroyed: the base of the pyramid is labeled with the complex of humiliation, whereas the political Olympus with the complex of permissiveness.

The conclusion is obvious: the growth of the social inequality strengthens the powerful positions of the favored few and inhibits the majority participation in politics, i.e., contradicts democracy and encourages authoritarian tendencies. Therefore, the world democratic practice elaborated the mechanisms of regulating the social inequality. A state through the budget and special funds redistributes national income for the benefit of the poor; within the system of power and civil society the structures are created that accumulate interests and demands of the social groups that are under-articulated in public or not articulated at all. The political purpose of these measures is to secure the social inequality within due limits, mitigate its negative consequences and maintain the civil activity of the population.

One can capture some correlation between the social inequality level and the forms of the political government3 Lane, Ersson 2003: 183—208.3. In the long-term prospect the countries with the high level of the social inequality incline towards authoritarianism. Democracy allows more or less compensating for that by broadening the participation of citizens in the political process. Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues that the “common will is inclined to the equality”. Embarking on the challenges that liberal democracy is facing in the globalizing world, the Western political thought seeks methods of involving the broad layers of the population into the public politics. The notion “inclusion” became deeply rooted in the lexis of political science as well as political practice. The theory of the deliberative democracy proves the necessity of the all-national reflexion for shaping public politics. The problem of minimizing social inequality and its political manifestations has come into the foreground in the socio-political life in many countries. The “measure of equality” occupies one of the most important places among the qualitative indicators of democracy4 Diamond, Morlino 2004: 21.4.

Russia of the 1990s experienced the avalanche-like breakdown of the property relations. The radical liberal reforms opened the doors to the unlimited growth of social inequality. The income fund index (10% of the most wellto-do to 10% of the least well-to-do) increased from 4.5 in 1991 to 15 in 2004. The indicator of the income polarization — the Gini index—increased from 0.260 to 0.406. According to the expert estimations, the difference between the living standards of the “poor Russia” and the “wealthy Russia” is hundredfold (the poor have $30 per month, whereas the rich $3000 per month)5 Rimashevskaya 2003: 26, 27, 111.5.

The income differentiation has resulted in the fundamental losses and the drastic decline in the qualitative characteristics of the Russian population. The UN-developed human potential development index (HPDI) decreased by 70 points in Russia in the time period from 1992 to 1996, and according to this index, the country descended from the 34th to the 57th place in the world6 Ibid.: 56.6. The social capital of the Russian society that is the very resource of the mutual confidence and mutual aid, which the bonds of solidarity and cooperation are based on, has also been undermined.

The comparison of the income distribution data and confidence indices reveals a certain pattern: the stronger the income differentiation, the weaker the mutual confidence, and vice versa7 Social Sources 2005: 69.7.

It is believed that the decrease in the index of the mutual confidence below 30% endangers the social and economic health of society. On average, in Russia it decreased from 38% in the early 1990s to 23% in 1997. Such situation indicates the formation of the stable “inequality culture” that is characterized by the increased aggressiveness and low cohesiveness8 Kislitsina 2005: 256—274.8.

The “inequality culture” also penetrates into politics creating the atmosphere of intolerance and confrontation hindering the nurture of the national consensus. It provokes confrontation between the society and the power. The socially oppressed classes stop identifying themselves with the power and the state. The civil solidarity being the in-depth basis of the very concept of the civil consciousness as the involvement of the members of the society in reaching the national goals and pursuing the state policy is weakened if not destroyed. Against this background, the civil solidarity is being “cannibalized” into the “private niches” (the corporative and the group one). The appeals for the unity in the face of the modern challenges such as the international terrorism and both ecological and demographic crises are falling on deaf ears. The interests of the social classes suffering hardships and deprivations, on the one hand, and the egoistically tuned prosperous part of the society, on the other hand, go in different directions. It is difficult to ensure the unity of the society even regarding those issues that actually concern each citizen. The increasing social inequality generates deep confrontation in the society that poses even the danger of splitting the society. The fatal consequences of the social inequality are especially noticeable in the transition period of the society that has already divided ideologically and socially. The polls indicate that in assessing the reforms the opinions of the Russian people is polarizing9 Levada 2005.9.

The search for the ways of the civil unification becomes the alpha and omega of Russia’s self-determination in the globalizing world. The issue of the “social citizenship,” i.e., the unification of the society members around national interests and goals requires such public policy that would closely connect the problems of freedom and equality. The state is designed to regulate the level of inequality in the society providing the basis for the stable civil solidarity and not allowing any confrontation of the citizens being the result of the uncontrolled growth of the social inequality10 Broadbent 2001.10.

It is impossible to entirely liquidate the inequality in politics as well as in other spheres of social life. It stems from the natural differences in the natural potential and abilities of people. Within some limits, inequality might even play a positive role encouraging the competitiveness between the subjects of the political process who reflect the interests and aspirations of different social classes and groups. However, there is a limit beyond which inequality not only becomes inefficient but also inflicts damage to the society. A.Shevyakov and A.Kiruta subdivide inequality into the normal one “characterizing the income distribution among the social classes within the population that are actively involved in the economic processes”, and excessive inequality caused by the low incomes of those layers that do not substantially affect the “macroeconomic changes”11 Shevyakov, Kiruta 2002: 67.11. The level of the excessive inequality in the modern Russia is rather high. According to N.Rimashevskaya, in 2002 33% of the population (47.7 million of people) had cash income below the minimum living wage12 Rimashevskaya 2003: 29.12.

The excessive inequality negatively affects the civil engagement of the population evoking the phenomenon of the “political poverty”. According to the interpretation of the American political scientist J.Bohman, the essence of this phenomenon lies in the “inability of some groups of citizens to efficiently participate in the democratic process”, which makes them vulnerable “to the consequences of the intentionally or unintentionally taken decisions”13 Bohman 1996: 125.13. The “political poverty” removes citizens from the public sphere; they are losing an opportunity to present their opinions and interests both to the society and the state. Bohman argues that it is the inability of one social group or another to bring up problems affecting their interests for the discussion that constitutes the indicator of the “political poverty”.

This topic is urgent for Russia of today, where the whole categories of the population are practically excluded from politics. We are talking not only about dropouts or low-skilled workers. Teachers, doctors, professors, researchers and other representatives of the country intellectual elite formed the ranks of the “new poor.” Absorbed in the daily survival problems, they are not able to comprehensively participate in public activities lacking any levers of pressure that can make the power include their demands into the political agenda of the day.

The developed democracies enjoy the branched and efficient mechanisms of revealing and expressing diverse interests of various social groups in public. The energy of the social self-activity induces the power to take into consideration these interests appealing to them in the framework of public politics. If some groups due to their poverty or low cultural level cannot articulate their demands, this mission is undertaken by the civil society organizations. The special commissions and committees studying their “latent” interests and suggesting the ways for their realization also operate within the system of the state power14 International Political Science Review 2004: 407— 408.14.

In Russia where the civil society is clearly underdeveloped there are no shock absorbers of the “political poverty”. Consequently, the ill-structured vague private interests are not translated into the public sphere, while the sphere itself is sort of a “patchwork” and is divided into the closed sectors. The growth of the “political poverty” leads to the fact that the function of the decision-making gets out of society control and is monopolized by the narrow circle of the ruling elite thereby generating authoritarian tendencies.

In the economic, socio-cultural, and political respect, modern Russia is divided into two unequal parts. The first one being represented by the “new Russians” and the ruling elite lives in some “glamorous” reality, whereas the other part bears on its shoulders the entire burden of the socio-economic and political poverty. The society is split into two “layers” that differ not only by the size of their incomes, but also in the way of life, worldview, language, and behavioral norms. The “poor Russia” keeps silent, which generates the illusion of stability for the rich and powerful. However, in the depths of the society dangerous processes are brewing, and the energy of protest is being accumulated. Without openly permeating into the political sphere, it is reflected in the socially deviant behavior of the large groups of the population. The protest manifests in the growth of alcoholism and drug abuse, transfer from the social life into the spheres of crime, mysticism, and religious fanaticism. Such forms of protest are no less disastrous than the one that the poet called the “cruel and senseless riot.” The protracted degradation of the society exhausts the creative potential of the people and deprives them of the hope for the revival of passionarity, which according to L.Gumilev transforms the nation into the historic actor.

The future of Russia is under question. This compels us to think about zigzags of the Russian transformation, about the real possibilities of democratic development, and formation of public politics that would meet these needs without imitating the models that are alien to the Russian conditions.

The radical liberal project of the 1990s could not have been implemented by the democratic means. The leverages of the authoritarian power pressure were necessary. The logic of the society democratic development was interrupted. It will suffice to recall the shooting of the parliament, the constitutional consolidation of the unlimited power of the first person, the destructive privatization of the state property that gave impetus to the vehement growth of the social inequality with all ensuing political consequences.

This was the real “backwash” of the perestroika period democratic wave entailing the social rise that provided the society with openness, freedom of press and mass confrontation against the putsch in August 1991. With the radical liberals ascend to power the policy of the authoritarian nature, or the “market bolshevism,” as P.Reddaway shrewdly noticed, triumphed.

The privatization was accompanied by the destruction of the state mechanisms responsible for the economy and society regulation which stimulated growth of anarchic tendencies and illegality. All of this not only delegitimized the reforms and doomed them to failure, but also brought the society into a crisis. The world practice demonstrates that liberal reforms in economic sphere can be successful only within the bounds of law and state institutions that ensure its compliance. Meanwhile, the Russian radical liberals let the genie of egoism and separation out of the bottle, at the same time destroying the governmental and legal constraints of the predatory capitalism. The weakened state lost the ability to defend its national interests and turned itself into the object of privatization on the part of the oligarchic groups and bureaucratic clans.

The consequences of privatization that violated the norms of law and moral were the society polarization, social inequality growth and political poverty. The democratic rise was replaced by the exhaustion and apathy, which prepared grounds for the monopolization of power and authoritarianism. Today it is this well-beaten track that the Russian society is moving along.

The logic of the spontaneous division of property and breakdown of the social structures, way of life, and stereotypes of the consciousness have provoked such chaos and absence of system that the ruling clique is facing the threat of complete loss of control levers over the country with a prospect of national catastrophe. After the default of 1998, one had to urgently undertake the palliative measures in order to stabilize the situation and strengthen the ambivalent political system established in Russia that combined the democratic achievements of perestroika with the subsequent “backwash” authoritarian tendencies.

It is impossible to unambiguously evaluate the current political course. One cannot but see that it is sort of an imperative. Both the society and the elite need strong levers of the centralized administration. The alternative to that is societal disintegration and collapse of the country. Taking into account the legacy inherited by the current government (the “backwash” of democracy, corruption of bureaucracy, weakening of the ties between the center and the regions, the crime wave, and terrorist activity), it was hardly possible to do without resorting to the administrative resources. However, the complete return to authoritarianism in the epoch of globalization and innovations has obviously no future.

Under democracy the power vertical both within the state system and the civil society is balanced by the system of checks and balances. In the Russian society that chose the path of the “backwash” the consolidation of democracy “stalled”. At the same time, the failure of “liberal bolshevism” and the tentative consolidation of the state power create prerequisites for the gradual advancement in this direction.

From the perspective of such disposition, one can state that in the nearand even medium-term future it is most probable that the “soft authoritarianism” will hold the predominant position in Russia, i.e. the regime when the political course is determined by a narrow circle of the ruling elite with a certain minimum of the democratic freedoms being retained, including the freedom of entrepreneurship (provided that the main groups of the private interests do not interfere into the big politics)15 A lot of profound Western political scientists think that such regime is rather typical for the countries with the underdeveloped civil society and weak traditions of the social self-activity that nevertheless choose the path of modernization. See Dahrendorf 1995; Bell 1997.15. It is this model that seems to outline the scope of the opportunities that the Russian society possesses today.

The “soft authoritarianism” might evolve both in the direction of gradual democratization of public politics as well as in the direction of its hardening. Where will Russia go? The choice has not been made yet. This issue remains the subject of the ideological-political confrontation, which focuses on the social politics and above all the problems of inequality.

For the Russian liberals, inequality is an awkward topic. In the 1950s, American economist S.Kuznets proposed a thesis according to which the progressive development of market economy itself retains social inequality within reasonable limits: income inequality increases only at the initial stage of economic growth, and it begins to decrease as soon as it reaches the point of saturation. However, there is a good deal of evidence that the “Kuznets curve” is true only with respect to normal inequality but not to the excessive one16 Bohman 1996: 71, 72, 100, 101.16.

The excessive inequality is increasingly hampering the development of Russian economy, is blocking its transition to the innovation stage and preparing the social ground for the populist authoritarianism, nationalistic feelings, and xenophobia. The social inequality has become a stumbling-block on the way to the radical-liberal reforms. Their rejection by the society makes the adherents of radical liberalism express readiness to use the authoritarian methods. In one of his interviews, G.Gref declared that since the governors elected by people “have to act looking back at people” it is better to appoint governors, “at least for the period of the rigid reforms”17 Nezavisimaya gazeta 15.10.2004.17. Some theoreticians who recently called for the Western models of democracy and markets imitation in Russia today hold the opposite opinion. Speaking in the School of Public Politics in Tomsk, B.Naishul, for example, confessed that he was “impressed by the experience of Chile, where the liberal state was created through the dictatorship”18 Ibid. 3.10.2005.18. The liberals in power are again ready to resort to breaking the social structures without taking into account the costs. The aspiration to impose the reforms that the society rejects by no means promotes the evolution of the “soft authoritarianism” in the democratic direction.

Russia is increasingly facing the need for a change of the public politics vector limiting the inequality and liquidating its extreme forms. The reformation of Russia requires a close link of democracy to the social problems solution. Can this problem be solved on the basis of the liberal individualism model? The twenty-year long experience of the Russian reforms as well as the international experience of the democratic transformations prove that it is impossible to establish the individual rights and freedoms by destroying the bonds of solidarity and cultivating private and corporate egoism.

The individual freedom is directly linked to the society structure. Therefore, the success of the democratic changes strongly depends on the interaction of the social politics liberal component with the communitarian element aimed at reaching the common good and social solidarity. The innovative type of development connected with the rapid growth of the social capital’s share reveals the historical limitations of the classic liberal model of the social structure. As the Spanish sociologist M.Castells notes, the interests, values, institutions, and systems of concepts based on the liberal principles limit “the collective creativity, confiscate the achievements of the informational technologies and divert our energy into the self-destructive confrontation”19 Castells 2000: 513.19.

The emerging innovative society needs such a model of development that will allow realizing the giant potential of the “collective creativity”. Under these conditions the Russian power is facing an acute problem whether to proceed with the reforms in the social sphere by the same methods or turn to the social policy that meets the modern requirements, or balances the public and private foundations. Russian society is increasingly showing symptoms of dissatisfaction with the current state social policy. Therefore, the ruling circles are undertaking some steps on the way towards the social liberalism of the democratic nature targeted at the interests of the majority of citizens. However, such measures do not change the one-sidedly liberal vector of public policy. It is supported by the current reforms in the spheres of education and public health, the monetization of benefits, and the reorganization of housing and utilities sector that pushing the power to exercise the more rigid methods of the authoritarian administration. Despite the verbal statements, authorities do not pay proper attention to the cornerstone problem of the social policy — the growing gap between the “upper classes” and the “lower classes.”

The society is demonstrating the increasing dissatisfaction with current state of social policy. According to the results of the survey conducted by the Institute of Sociology, 56% of Russian citizens express such dissatisfaction and advocate the model of the more homogeneous20 Social Inequalities 2006: 28—30.20 social structure. While at the beginning of the century the Russians championed the existing regime since it secured the “order”, now they are no longer comfortable with the “stability without development”21 Ibid.: 120.21.

The liberal paradigm of social policy is obviously meeting the public resistance. This begs the question: will the power resist the “authoritarian temptation” to exercise this political course by the liberal-authoritarian methods? In essence, this is the question on the choice of the developmental direction: it is either a movement backward, i.e., a new historic zigzag and return to the strong forms of authoritarianism, which might lead to a new stagnation and loss of chances for a breakthrough towards post-industrialism, or a painfully difficult evolutionary development towards democracy and innovative society.


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