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Russia Facing a Social Capital Deficit?

In Shankar Vedantam’s column in the Washington Post today, he opens up a discussion of how the U.S. effort to build democracy in Iraq has been fundamentally flawed for its failure to engage the dynamic of social capital, and harness the cohesive power of networks and relationships among important community stakeholders. Social capital, which traces its origins back to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the 1970s, is not exactly a new nor fashionable academic trend, but it is seeing a bit of a revival thanks to a new study by Anirudh Krishna in the Journal of Politics which argues that such a phenomenon can be measured. socialcapital1029.jpg According to Vedantam’s interview with political scientist Robert Putnam, the social capital guru, top-down models of governance and resource allocation run counter to everything known about how social capital grows. Putnam argues that “People tend to obey the rules not because they are worried about cops but because they have obligations to other people.” For example, “In the U.S., tax compliance is powerfully predicted by the level of social capital in a community.” For this reason, it is stated later in Vedantam’s column, Putnam long ago predicted that democracy is “unlikely to flourish” in Russia, for its low levels of social capital. Is such a broad generalization of Russia’s “fertility” for democracy really merited? Or have the well intentioned proponents of community-driven development accidentally cornered themselves into committing to cultural determinism? It would certainly be insulting to the followers of the great democratic traditions of Andrei Sakharov and other brave individuals to say that Russians simply like their czars and somehow lack the social capacity for open societies – however this contention bears remarkable resemblance to the arguments of sovereign democracy. Christopher Marsh of Baylor University published a study in 2002 on social capital and grassroots democracy in Russia which noted the importance of the impact of individuals above the structural issues: “Individuals not only lead a country to democratize, they also affect the process of democratic consolidation. As the analysis of the gubernatorial elections made clear, the development of grassroots democracy across Russia is largely affected by individuals and elites, not just underlying structural issues. As Huntington points out, the chances of whether a democracy will fail or consolidate “depends primarily on the extent to which political leaders wish to maintain it and are willing to pay the costs of doing so instead of giving priority to other goals.” Although those factors may defy quantification, this should not lead us to discount their significance.” So what is the role and impact of social capital in Russia’s upcoming elections? Is Putinism causing a deficit in social capital? I do wonder, if we took Anirudh Krishna’s measurement technique, and asked ordinary Russians whether they would rather own 15 acres of land alone, or 40 acres in partnership with another person, what kind of results would we see? I put forward a lot of questions here and few answers – I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts.