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Book Review June 26, 2003
 
Satter The Almost Just
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 3
 
Volkov, by contrast, is relentlessly logical in tracing the rise of the Mafias to economic self-interest, intelligently pursued by young men who had learned the free-market model by heart. One of Volkov's most provocative arguments is that the Mafias' violence was a rational way of attaining market dominance, and not something to be explained away as a legacy of Soviet conditioning, Russian totalitarian traditions, or any other saving anomaly unique to Russia.

Of course, Volkov doesn't work for the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. Satter writes for both papers. After reading Satter's denunciations of free-market devastation in Russia, you have to wonder how he reconciles his work for those rightwing rags with what he sees in Russia. Aren't they the Western papers that insisted most loudly that all was well under Gaidar and Chubais?

More importantly, how can Satter see and denounce Russian predatory capitalism and not see anything similar to it in his own country? How can he denounce the Loans-for-Shares scheme without even mentioning Enron, World.com, or the mass lootings that followed deregulation of the Savings and Loans under Reagan? How can he listen to Chubais lie about UES without hearing echoes of what happened to the energy market in California?

What we are seeing here is what the shrinks call "Cognitive Dissonance": the clash of a deeply-held belief with overwhelming evidence. The evidence says that Capitalism has been a disaster for Russia; the belief is that Capitalism is Good.

Of course Satter is hardly the first Western reporter to come to Russia and see for the first time the horrors of Capitalism he never noticed back home. It's always easier to spot and denounce horrors you encounter abroad. At home things just feel natural. Besides, seeing Russia as a fairly typical, if raw and still-forming example of Capitalism would fuse all the little circuits in the American reporters' heads. So Cognitive Dissonance requires that the Western reporter must find a way to make Russia unique, a case of rogue Capitalism unique in history.

One of the more common, crude methods of doing this is to blame the Soviets for failing to prepare people for the risks of the Market. Satter occasionally resorts to this technique: "The techniques used by swindlers were designed to take advantage of the weaknesses and gullibility of Russian citizens that had been created by decades of Soviet life."

Umm...not to be difficult, but how then would one explain "the weaknesses and gullibility" which led 100 million Americans to believe in the pyramid scheme called "the Stock Market"? How to explain the "weaknesses and gullibility" which led the employees of Enron, World.Com, priceline, and every other US company to accept lower pay and harsher conditions in exchange for worthless vouchers, aka "stock options"?

A far better, more adaptable technique is to compare Russian specifics with an abstract, idealized model of a "free-market democracy." And this is exactly what Satter does in the first chapters of his book. He isolates the key mistake of Russian Capitalism in the 1990s: the Young Reformers' belief that "...it was possible to build a free-market democracy without the rule of law." This, Satter says, was disastrous:

"In fact a market economy presupposes the rule of law...Without law, prices are dictated not by the market but by monopolization and the use of force."

That sounds very neat, but it isn't how the NeoCons explain matters. They've said -- about a billion times in a row, in papers like, er, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times -- that it's just the other way around: a free market would eventually lead to the "rule of law," whereas attempts to create democracy without a free market were doomed to turn into totalitarian socialist states.

Gaidar was, if nothing else, a very accurate translator of Reagan/Thatcher ideological commonplaces. So, when Satter paraphrases Gaidar's theories, ostensibly to show their heresy, my reaction was just the opposite: it's striking how familiar and how standard all of the views of Gaidar and his friends really were.


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