What could Soviet Union have learnt from developmental South Korea?

By Camelia Vasilov

Kohli (2004) argues that the pattern of state authority – and particularly the institutionalization of the relationship state-private sector – is crucial in explaining why essentially the same developmental challenge resulted in different outcomes for South Korea, Brazil, India and Nigeria. I think that we can gain useful insight from this theory into the success and failure of the Soviet Union.

Indeed, the efficacy of the government in imposing growth-inducing economic decisions, at the expense of much human suffering, was the key to the miraculous Soviet industrialization and urbanization achieved in only 15 years. But the Soviet system carried the seeds of its own destruction.

As Olson (2000) shows, it wasn’t just the state appropriation of all capital, but rather the peculiar system of taxation that squeezed the maximum worth of people’s work and gave the Soviet Union “more resources for the purposes of leadership that any society in history” (p.120).

Soviet taxation was nearly total on regular working hours, as only the state was entitled to the benefits of people’s work, whose wages were kept below subsistence level. However, there was no taxation on working extra hours – Stakanovist practices were actually monetarily rewarded – or engaging in little trades on the side, unrecognized by the state, as long as one was not caught. Basically, people had to work outside the planned economy as well if they wanted to survive.

But eventually these tiny markets that emerged within the cracks of totalitarian power became essential for fixing the mistakes of planned economy – and the state lost more and more transactional information and thus control over the emerging entrepreneurs.

Wouldn’t it have better if the SSSR took these entrepreneurs under its wings and aligning its goals with them? An agent with the same preferences as the principal is no longer a problem. In South Korea - a cohesive-capitalist state in Kohli’s framework – this is exactly the case: the two horses of business and state are pulling in the same direction (p.21). Could the Soviet Union have become a cohesive-capitalist state? Is China undergoing this transition now? 

Trading favors. A note on informal institutions and culture

By Camelia Vasilov

Helmke and Levitsky (2004) propose a research agenda on informal institutions based on their interaction with the formal ones. They start their analysis by saying what informal institutions are not – and one of the things they are not is culture. In contrast, for Nunn (2012) informal institutions are, at their core, culturally determined heuristics, or “shortcuts” for decision-making.

In this post I will explore the tensions between the two views using the example of the informal exchanges of goods and services that arose under the Communist regimes in Soviet Union and China: blat and guanxi, respectively.

Helmke and Levitsky give blat as an example of accommodating institutions, which according to their definition are “often created by actors who dislike outcomes generated by the formal rules but are unable to change or openly violate those rules” (p. 729). In both the Soviet Union and China, informal exchange performed the same functions: it was needed for maintaining the livelihood of people unable to support themselves only on the basis of the received wages, and for meeting the impossible targets of state planning.

Ledeneva (2008) notices that there are differences between these practices that fulfill essentially the same goal, namely the reciprocity considered moral, their legitimacy and their incipient codification. She argues that these differences are rooted in the culture. For example, while blat was pervasive in the entire Soviet Union, few could articulate when asked what its rules were. On the contrary, “the code of guanxi is derived from the kinship ethics and popular Confucianism” (p. 127), and this new practice was thus planted into an old cultural field, thus increasing its stability and even legitimacy.

The separation between culture and informal institutions evident in this case seems to support Helmke and Levitsky’s argument. However, one could make the case that Confucianism itself, taken here as culture, was also a set of informal institutions that shaped the decision-making of people for so long that it became the norm. Nunn might point out that although blat and guanxi performed the same role, their came about in society in a rather distinct ways, which would make them historically different practices. 


Did a lack of war cause African states to fail?

By Camelia Vasilov

Starting from Tilly’s well-known argument that in Europe “war made the state, and the state made war”, Herbst proposes an insightful thesis in his article on state-making in Africa: that the absence of inter-state war removed one important avenue for successful state formation on the African continent.

I think the state-war-making thesis hides more from the researcher than it reveals. For instance, it allows us to dispense with the local conditions in the pre-colonial times as variables explaining the success of state making or lack thereof. One example in which these conditions can hardly be ignored is the Tiv culture in Nigeria: a flourishing yet completely egalitarian and stateless society before the arrival of the British.

The Tiv people held beliefs that impeded state creation at every point in time before and even during the colonial times. Namely, as the anthropologist Paul Bohannan argued, the Tiv believed that a person capable of making others following his or her orders must be guilty of witchcraft. A very popular religion amongst this population – the Nyambua – was based on selling charms to protect from those who seemed to possess the dark power tsav (which we would maybe call today “leadership”) and on issuing accusations against such people. Tsav did not mean only “power” or “leadership” – a successful tsav was thought to be also a cannibal that gains extra power from eating human corpses.

The spread of Nyambua posed real problems to the British government in 1939, when its adepts started to declare the “local chiefs” put in place by the British as tsav and rebel against them. Further research showed that this religion became popular since time immemorial, when a series of intra-community conflicts caused by men gaining too much power spilled the blood of the Tiv people. Essentially, the deeply held belief of this people – learnt from war times – was that no one should gain too much power. How can one expect a state to arise that would successfully govern the Tiv?