On universal versus specific categories of network capitalism: a reply to V. Barnett's note.

Author:Oleinik, Anton
Position:Notes and Communications

In his note, Vincent Barnett raises an important issue: how to set a limit with respect to analogies while inquiring into history or making cross-cultural comparisons. Historians and sociologists are especially skeptical about finding far-reaching similarities between phenomena that are distant in space and time. "The causal conditions involved in generalizations about human social conduct are inherently unstable in respect of the very knowledge that actors have about the circumstances of their own action" (Giddens 1984, xxxii). Mainstream economists, by contrast, are not used to paying special attention to the context to which their models are applied. They claim that neoclassical models have universal validity; this belief serves to strengthen economic imperialism, in other words, the direct application of the neoclassical methods to the subject matters of other social sciences. Both of these extreme points of view have a number of rather obvious shortcomings. And my article on models of network capitalism was viewed as a step toward bypassing the extremes and finding an intermediate methodological position.

The main point made by Barnett consists in emphasizing the limited exploratory value of the analogies supposedly existing between the Russian prerevolutionary rural community, obshchina, and some forms of networking that were observed during Soviet rule and in the post-Soviet period. I would not like to focus the discussion on the issues that might interest only a narrow group of specialists in Russian studies. However, some of these topics deserve mention. A similarity with respect to the localized patterns of everyday behavior between the obshchina and Soviet enterprises/post-Soviet firms is not limited to birthday celebrations in the workplace or a system of mutual help functioning in keeping with the principle "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" (while describing everyday life in their small groups, my students at a high-ranked Moscow university surprisingly referred to very comparable norms). Let us take a closer look at a system of collective responsibility of all agents (peasants or employees) vis-a-vis their superiors, the krugovaja poruka. Barnett mistakenly affirms that the obshchina had nothing to do with the State institutions and the other outside sources of power: "The pre-revolutionary obshchina was a genuine peasant collective organization, albeit with a hierarchical ruling structure within, but with no final controlling body from without." Vasilij Kluchevski, Russian historian, has provided us with a more nuanced view. He emphasized several controversies pertaining to the role that the State played in the evolution of the Russian rural community. "Some [students] think that our Russian obshchina appeared in relatively late times, set up in the last quarter of the eighteenth century as a result of enslaving and poll-taxation. Others would rather agree ... with an opposite affirmation according to which the obshchina is an aboriginal phenomenon, its unwritten constitution has been respected since the early times in Russian history.... In Ancient Russia, the rural community was called mir, the word 'obshchina' was simply unknown.... The principles of land duties have made peasants mutually dependant through the land: duties were calculated per vyt' (a small district) and all the peasants of a vyt' bore a collective responsibility for their discharge" (1987, lecture XXXVI). This means that one of the key features of the obshchina, the system of collective responsibility, was a by-product of the fiscal policy implemented by the tsarist government.

Now let us turn to some examples of the policies consciously chosen by the management of Soviet enterprises or post-Soviet firms to enforce a collective responsibility on the part of their employees. (1) The first case was mentioned by the director of a big machine-building enterprise located in the far eastern area of Russia. The individual in question has occupied that prominent position since the mid 1980s; the company was established in the early 1940s during Soviet rule. He complained about theft in the workplace. "Somebody has stolen a lot of aluminum parts. We're unable to find the thief. I refuse to believe that nobody has seen the thief stealing 30 aluminum parts! ... I decided to proceed as follows. I had allowed the employees to rent the property belonging to the company. Most of them use it for a long-term parking. I told them to get out: 'Either you find the thief for me or I won't allow you to park your cars on the property. Good bye.... Either you catch the thief for me, or everybody will park their cars outside." There is no doubt that the thief probably acted on his own, but the director believes in the...

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