The USSR Died, But the State Survived

Belarus, the former Soviet Republic that has remained largely unchanged since the fall of the Iron Curtain, finds itself immersed in a political maelstrom following a contentious presidential election and widespread public outcry. Battered and arrested by riot police, protestors are speaking out against what they regarded as a rigged election, an artful act of political theater fashioned to reinstall president Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko has held the presidency of the country virtually without challenge since 1994. “Six years ago,” reports BCC News’ David Stern, “he altered the constitution to allow him to run for an indefinite number of terms,” and this year’s democratic elections have been criticized as posturing to secure loans from the European Union.

By now, it’s fairly clear that any ode to democracy or fair elections emanating from the Belarusian state is for show, but behind the EU’s “good government” admonishments there isn’t anything that’s much better. Like all economic systems that rely on the graceless pressures of elite control, Belarus has atrophied under Lukashenko’s draconian interference, an arrangement he calls “market socialism.”

That system — above all a way for the state’s anointed to wring wealth from the country’s productive — is difficult to distinguish from the state capitalism that “populist” Lukashenko reviled at the outset of his presidency. True market socialism, in contrast to those systems that funnel societal wealth toward the state’s nobility, features an absence of contrived advantages and the liberation of those trades we might make with our neighbors if left to our own devices. It was this kind of market socialism that Benjamin Tucker advocated when he said that “there is no half-way house between State Socialism and Anarchism;” that is, the worthy goals of socialism should not (and could not) be adulterated with the principle of political authority.

The corrupt elections in Belarus, rather than representing some deviation from the norm, are typical of all elections and political exercises — the spectacles that sanctify what we’d otherwise call “crime.” Belarus’s political class may pine for the riches of the EU’s coffers, but cultivating a sensible, working economy is hardly their concern. As philosopher Michael Polyani pointed out of the Soviet Union, “[political] rulers … know, better than anyone else, the impossibility of genuine central planning … but their lips are sealed.” For them, the state’s economic intrigues operate just fine; even when the economy at large becomes etiolated, leaving the worker out in the cold, the wheels are grind away for the charmed lives of the state’s genteel managers.

Commenting on the economic realities attending discontent in Belarus, Stern notes that “[m]any factories keep producing to stay busy, but the goods they create are merely piling up …” Polyani dubbed this phenomenon “conspicuous production,” a miscalculation inherent to high-handed, centralized economic systems that, due to their rigidity, pump out capital goods at levels completely out of keeping with need.

Inasmuch as they constantly withdraw their undeserved cut from the process, the manager/bureaucrat echelon of the class society subsists on this kind of resource waste. Though even Belarus, with its derisible regime, is arguably not a “centrally-planned” economy, what we call the process isn’t all that important. We don’t call the West’s corporatist economies “centrally-planned” either, but how concentrated does economic decision-making need to be before we admit that some small group of people frames and arranges the economic system for the rest of us?

Political theorists divert themselves with drawing arbitrary lines to answer that question, but — for the productive class in the service of the state and its friends — their answers will be of little solace. And, for the same reasons, Belarus’s simulated elections are unlikely to provide comfort to protestors who have grown weary of the status quo. Fortunately for them and for us, history has made the central problem (in Belarus and all over the world) quite plain.

That problem is the state, the one institution we exempt from all of the general, moral assumptions that guide our daily dealings with one another. All ventures into politics are ultimately to prove unavailing at anything but reinforcing the untruths that hold it up. Ousting Lukashenko — as opposed to the structures of abuse and control that he personifies — would, like the buckling of the Soviet Union, ultimately change nothing at all.

In that way, political revolutions are no revolutions at all. Only anarchism’s peaceful revolution of fraternity and free exchange can liberate society from the manacles of the statism.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory