Reviews Dissertation review. A Marxist interpretation of post-Communist Estonia

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 46-50, Vol I:I, 2008
Published on balticworlds.com on februari 16, 2010

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I.

MOST SOCIAL-SCIENTIFIC analyses of the development of East and East-Central Europe’s post-Communist countries consist of varying assessments of the more or less painful emergence or re-emergence of the market economy, civil society and democratic state. They may include criticism, but usually their starting point is ”constructive” — as is evident in the dominant theoretical approaches used, including various theories of state formation, (post)modernization, democratic transition and the like.

Peter Bötker’s thesis goes against this mainstream tendency. It is a decidedly oppositional work that views the last fifteen to twenty years of Estonian development from a Marxist perspective. It takes as its point of departure theories on the state advanced, during the 1960s and 1970s, by French theoretician Nicos Poulantzas. According to Poulantzas, control of the means of production determines who belongs to the dominant class, and the state is an arena in which social classes and class factions compete for domination. The state, thus, according to the author, is ”an organizational factor for the dominating class”, and political parties are ”the dominant class’s representatives and agents” within the state.

Bötker’s thesis focuses on the relationship between Estonia’s public administration and government authority. Bötker paints a very critical picture of the links between the Estonian state, economy, and civil society. He claims — in opposition to the assumptions that underlie most theories on such subjects — that both Estonia’s public administration and government authorities have been weak. Bötker holds that this finding contradicts the theoretically-based and ”common sense” idea that if a country has a strong government or political center, then the politicians will have subordinated the bureaucracy or executive power — in other words, the country’s bureaucracy will be weak. Bötker’s findings are also incommensurate with the equally ”common-sense” idea that if a country has a weak government or political center, then those who are supposed to execute government policies will have great latitude to operate as they wish; in other words, the bureaucracy will be strong.

Bötker’s main goal is to describe and explain the factors that have caused Estonia’s weak governments to be attended by weak bureaucracies. That is to say, this is the hypothesis upon which his study is based. Actually, this question functions more as a broad jumping-off point for a general discussion of state-society relations than as a strict guiding principle for his analysis.

IN BÖTKER’S VIEW, the transition from a Soviet Estonia to an independent Estonia was characterized, on the one hand, by the fact that the various factions within the Soviet-Estonian dominant class lost contact with society: ”between 1987 and 1992, centrifugal powers scattered the state and the actors in the social landscape in different directions.” On the other hand, dominant-class members began to compete for the state-owned properties that were shortly to be privatized. During the process of privatization and the ensuing fight over property distribution, Estonia rapidly developed into a ”capital-intensive” country, in terms of the growth and rate of capital movements’ volume, accessibility and movement among different actors. Those who profited were those factions of the dominant class who could establish themselves within the state, and those who found a niche at what could be termed the ”court” — that is, very close to the state’s most central actors.

This development led, in its turn, to the state’s main organizations being able to do without support from the masses of the population, or, as Bötker puts it, capital intensity ”undermines the political parties’ creation of a deep and broad anchor in the social landscape”. Bötker argues that growing capital intensity in fact allows political parties to dispense with anchorage in civil society. His reasoning is based on Apostolis Papakostas’s analysis of changes in the character of mass movements and mass organizations — a concept of the state of things that Bötker terms postmodern. This includes the postulate that modern organizations no longer need the masses. If, in the past, ”industrial organizations were based on the limited resources of many people [and so needed mass membership], these organizations have recently found more direct roads to […] resources”. The new capital-intensive economy has created new ways to finance enterprises and concerns. The organizations’ members have transformed themselves ”to sympathizers, or to consumers of the organizations’ activities”.

But capital intensity does not merely lead to the obsolescence of mass, membership-based organizations for both organizations and for members of the dominant class. It also leads to the masses, the people, turning their backs on the organizations. The common person’s way of organizing him– or herself has become fragmented. In the postmodern state, mass organizations are replaced by ”an archipelago of small, apolitical, private and individualized areas”. This is the state of affairs that, Bötker holds, we can now see in Estonia. There is only a weak link between Estonian citizens and the Estonian state. The country’s political parties lack roots in civil-society groups, membership in mass organizations is low, voting is very unstable and varies from one election to the other, and so on. This is a trend, as we know, which is to be found not only in post-Communist countries but in ”old” democracies, as well. Fragmentation in organization and individualization of experience is a fact in both Estonia and Western Europe, argues Bötker.

The privatization of state property has also had an impact on relations between the factions within the dominant class, as manifested in party strife. Privatization has contributed to a schism or fissures between the factions. This is key, Bötker writes, to understanding the Estonian governments’ internal weakness during the 1990s. ”[T]he Estonian governments have been torn apart from within, because of capital intensity.” The main dividing line between the various factions appears between those whom Bötker usually terms the ”earlier” (the ”före detta”), or, sometimes, the ”old”, and the ”new”. This has led to conflicts between and within governments which have shifted between the ”earlier” and the ”new”, with corresponding shifts in attitudes towards the scope and timing of privatization.

NEITHER ”EARLIER” NOR ”new” groups have ”broad and deep links to civil society”. The ”earlier” groups include, ”among others, those actors who had, during the old regime, positions that allowed them to control the means of production”. The ”new” include ”operators who previously were outside the dominant class, [but who now] could march onto the state arena”. Bötker gives various instances of personal ties linking Estonian political parties and the country’s economic elite. Among governments dominated by the ”new” groups, Mart Laar’s first government (1992—1994) is given special mention. This was the first time the ”new” controlled the government — leading to intensified capital intensity, and also revealing tensions between the dominant class factions.

Bötker never fully defines the terms ”earlier” and ”new”. These terms seem to be taken directly from Estonia’s public discussion. It would have been illuminating to analyze them, instead of taking them for granted.

Key to the growth of capital intensity was Estonia’s comprehensive privatization. ”After the state’s retreat […] opportunities to appropriate resources sprang up. […] Capital intensity […] led to the emergence of a number of conflicting but independent factions within the dominant class.” Which factions are these? Bötker does not specify. Instead, he quotes a journalist who, in the early 1990s, found that ”in addition to the managers of state-owned corporations [there were] two leading class factions whose interests were behind most of the economic and political conflicts”. The first of these was the Estonian Taxpayers’ Association, which consisted of people grouped around ”the Riksbank, Hansabank, Tartu Krediitbank, Hoiubanken and the large-scale enterprise Eesti Talleks”. The second faction consisted of ”the capital which was primarily involved in transit trade”.

MANY PROBLEMS IN the Estonian state administration are, finally, to be traced to the capital-intensive economy. Capital intensity, or, rather, the fissures that capital intensity has created between various factions within the dominant class, is ”one reason why the Estonian state administration has neither been able to assert its expert positions [expertpositioner], nor build alliances with actors in the social landscape”. These fissures have meant that ”various parties could set different government units on a collision course”. Estonia’s public administration has been the victim of different governments’ varying requirements and expectations, as well as the attractive alternative employment opportunities which the strong private sector offers qualified civil servants. Nor did this period see any alliance-building with actors in civil society — alliances which had existed, in certain forms, during the Soviet era, and which might have strengthened the administration and given it more space in which to maneuver.

The book does not, however, offer a systematic analysis of the weakness problem. Here, also, Bötker emphasizes the part played by the government coalition of 1992, when the ”new” first gained government power. Changes were then made in the old bureaucracy: ”the radical restructuring of the public administration that the coalition government […] undertook […] in 1992 must be seen in light of the threat of take-over that the old bureaucracy posed.” The end of the 1990s, which was the second time the ”new” elite controlled the government, again under Mart Laar’s leadership, ushered in a second set of changes — now, less a question of restructuring than of transfer of personnel. In any case, the civil service was subjected to structural changes and transfers of personnel throughout the 1990s; it was a common phenomenon under the ”earlier’s” governments, as well. There was little time for a mutual learning process, and ”the chancellery” was often the victim of varying or rapidly changing expectations. The rules were changed again and again, decision-making was centered at different levels under different governments, personal acquaintances have played a major role in recruitment, and so on. All this has disrupted the process of institutionalization.

Bötker quotes figures which demonstrate how extensive the transfer of personnel has been within various ministries, something which has led to insecurity, and other problems, among the civil servants. In addition to numerous changes of government and the consequent changes of staff Bötker, mentions a generational shift, the atmosphere, personal tensions within the administration, and other sectors’ competition for young people with civil service competence.

It is in light of this dual development — short-lived and conflict-ridden governments and a non-institutionalized bureaucracy — that one understands how it can happen that a weak government is not necessarily complemented by a strong administration (as postulated by most theoretical models). In Estonia, weak governments coexist with weak administrations.

All in all, then, Bötker paints a picture according to which factions within the class which was dominant during the Soviet era took advantage of their positions within the state to grab economic and political resources during Estonia’s transition to an independent nation. They focused on the state and the new ”capital-intensive” economy, and turned their backs on civil society, which they no longer needed. Here, the ”old” were joined by newcomers among the economic and political elite. The ”old” have struggled with these ”new” factions for economic and political power, a struggle whose contours are discernible in changing government coalitions. The logic behind the pattern that Bötker sketches is reminiscent of descriptions of the re-formation of the Russian elite during the wild years of privatization under Yeltsin in the early 1990s.

II.

THERE IS, UNDENIABLY, a certain intuitive plausibility to Bötker’s somewhat provocative reasoning. Bötker invites us to look differently at the so-called ”transition” — to regard it as an example of the general combined process of capitalist modernization and postmodern social development under conditions of thorough-going change. The focus on the state and the economy, on their interrelationship, and on the ability of groups entrenched in the state to reap profits in a period when everything seems to be fluid and when new opportunities suddenly open, seems, indeed, appropriate to any realistic analysis of the post-socialist states. Despite this, analyses of the Estonian transformation done within the social sciences have usually chosen alternative approaches. In short, the focus on the state directs our attention to different power positions and to struggles for resources among different potentates and their coalitions — as opposed to the far more common foci on nation(-building) and civil society, which direct attention either towards integration, common value systems and other cultural factors, or to the (re)birth of associational life.

BÖTKER’S PERSPECTIVE provides a welcome corrective to the more usual trends within research on post-Communist Estonia. But this does not justify his failure to compare his own views and findings to those of other scholars in the same field. Without this type of discussion, it is difficult to evaluate how convincing Bötker’s account is. Another, still more crucial criterion in an assessment of Bötker’s argument is the question of the empirical solidity — or fragility — of his case. I will start with a discussion of the latter issue.

The source material that Bötker has collected for his thesis consists of interviews with twenty civil servants, seven from the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs, seven from the Ministry of Finance and six from the State Chancellery. This was done, he writes, in order to let ”current and former officials present their versions of the administration’s position in the making of Estonian politics, and of how, according to them, the organization of the Estonian ministries functioned and functions”. The interviews dealt with issues that are central to the thesis’s key themes. After completion, the interviews were subjected to ”a systematic coding” in order to elicit information on key issues concerning the ministries’ structural changes, changes of priorities and changes in management, rivalry between units, etc. In addition to interviews and talks with politicians and officials, Bötker has used newspapers and, of course, a number of scholarly publications, in particular Estonian-language and Estonian sources.

THE DATA APPEARS interesting, as far as one can gather from the many fragments that appear in various chapters of the book, but its value to the analysis is considerably diminished by its unsystematic and unreflective usage. Information gathered from interviews is often coupled with other types of information, such as newspapers or research material, without these sources’ very different natures being taken into account. It is not always clear, further, whether the interviewees function as informants who provide factual information, or whether they themselves are taken as objects of study — e.g., people whose statements are to be treated as partisan views on the weakness-strength relationship between Estonian civil servants and the country’s political leaders.

The imprecise use of empirical evidence is a general problem. In many cases, one encounters reflections that are only loosely connected to the empirical information given. In other words, Bötker often provides ”arguments” that float rather freely, neither constrained by or tested against the empirical evidence he provides. All this must necessarily reduce the informative value of Bötker’s results, despite the fact — acknowledged above — that his reflections in themselves are often interesting.

The same problem can be seen in the book’s lack of discussion of other scholars’ alternative, or even opposite, results and interpretations, including, most notably, those of many Estonian sociologists and political scientists. Bötker’s critical engagement with their work is implicit rather than explicit; he does not enter into a serious discussion with them. Striking examples of this are the important differentiation between the ”earlier” and ”new” factions within the dominant class and the assessment of the level of organization in countries that have experienced a ”transition from Communism”. These are weighty issues that bear on post-Communist elite formation and the nature of civil society and its organizations, both at the turn of the 1990s and afterwards. Rein Ruutsoo is one of several scholars who has done extensive analyses of both elite formation and the process of popular organization in Estonia, from the ”Singing Revolution” and onwards. He sees the earliest and primary divisions among the elite as an opposition between the Popular Front and the Estonian Congress. This links the elite faction identified by Bötker as ”new” — notably, Patria and Mart Laar — to the latter, radically nationalist line. It would have been interesting, and potentially very informative, to read about the relationship between this ideological-political division, and the economic-political split Bötker postulates between the ”earlier” and the ”new”. Ruutsoo also reflects on why Estonia, a  ”movement society” at the turn of the 1990s, experienced  a decline in the organizational process for the rest of the decade. He stresses, here, the special circumstances that characterized Estonia in transition. But Bötker ignores all transition-related explanations. He simply posits a decline of mass organizations in the postmodern era: ”The postmodern fragmentation of society seems to have other and much deeper roots in some societies than the abandonment of a given social system [samhällstillstånd]. ”

THESE THEMES – THE fundamental division among the elite and the character of the country’s associational activity — are both issues of great importance, of which Bötker presents a highly original view. An explicit engagement with alternative interpretations might have added to the credibility of his analysis.

The main observation of the book, namely the simultaneous presence of a weak administration and a weak government, could also be linked to, and explained by, Estonia’s transition problem. It seems to me that Bötker, without admitting it, in fact evokes transition-related factors — re-structuring, personnel transfers, the rivalry with the business sector for competent employees, etc. — in order to explain this double weakness. This makes the paradox with which Bötker opens his thesis seem a bit contrived. However, as pointed out above, the point of double weakness is, in fact, a starting point for a more general examination of Estonian state and society, rather than a rigid hypothesis governing the course of the study.

An additional, striking example of Bötker’s unwillingness to enter into discussion with previous scholarship is apparent in his discussion of the extension of popular organizations after 2000. True, he acknowledges that the number of and membership in citizen associations had grown between the late 1990s and 2005, something which Estonian researchers have shown. ”While, in 1998, there were an estimated 6,000 associations in Estonia, the number was close to 15,500 by 2001 and has now reached 23,000. The citizens of Estonia thus appear to be very active in organizing themselves.” But he rejects this interpretation. He points out, among other things, that most of these organizations are small, that new members are recruited primarily from among old members’ acquaintances, and that sports and cultural organizations make up the greater part of the citizens’ associations. According to Bötker, this means that politically irrelevant organizations dominate, something which in turn supports his own argument. ”When civil society is living its own active life, where people concern themselves with everything except participation in political and state-related [statsbärande] organizations, then a distance develops between government and citizens in spite of a vital civil society.” But this is no more than an ”argument”, a choice in abstracto of one view over another in the ongoing debate on the role of non-political organizations in democratic development. The problem is aggravated by the fact that there exist Estonian studies on the subject, as well as opposing evaluations of the past years’ developments (by Mikko Lagerspetz, Erle Rikmann and others). It is also striking that Bötker does not assess the so-called Estonian Civil Society Development Concept (Eesti Kodanikeühiskonna Arengu Kontseptsiooni, EKAK), a document, approved by the Estonian Parliament in 2002, that offers a framework for regulating the relationship between associations and government. He does not even mention the document, although scholarly work that sees it as important has been done and is readily available. The omission is all the more surprising given that Bötker does state (in passing) that ministries have more cooperation with citizens’ associations now than they had during the 1990s, and that plans exist to transfer certain public functions to citizens’ associations.

IT IS STRIKING that Bötker’s thesis never mentions the Russian-speaking population. I find this absence curious in a work that deals with the Estonian state and state-society relations from the state’s point of view. The Russian-speaking minority constitutes 30 percent of the Estonian population. A large proportion of its members are not ethnic Estonians and therefore not members of the state (that is, not citizens). Nevertheless, they are members of society, and thus help shape the relationship between state and society. The situation reflects Estonia’s character as a ”nationalizing state”, something which is, again, a prominent aspect of state-society interaction. But I must admit that the decision to ignore Estonia’s Russian-speakers is consistent with the economic-political orientation of the concept of the state that Bötker’s study adopts.

III.

DESPITE THE CRITICISM I have leveled against Bötker’s treatment of his subject matter, the key merits of his thesis still stand. The study constitutes an against-the-tide, even provocative attempt to focus on ”hard” economic and political power struggles and competition over resources when analyzing the new Estonia. More precisely, his topic — the relationship between Estonia’s political leadership and administration in a ”new democracy” — is both topical, and underexplored. The choice demonstrates the author’s determination to use his dissertation to examine a socially and politically central macro- issue. The subject is thorny and difficult to work on, something which accounts for a number of the problems he encountered in his study.

An interesting point is Bötker’s own position, situated between Estonia and Sweden. As someone who spent his childhood in Estonia and then moved to Sweden in early adulthood, Bötker is neither an insider nor an outsider in relation to Estonia. His position seems to differ from that of the Estonian scholars who see the situation from within, in that he appears to be at a point that offers him an exceptionally independent and profoundly critical look at recent developments. But he also differs from those with a more distant relationship to Estonia, e.g., second-generation emigrants trained in the United States. Bötker’s particular position is reflected, in an interesting and intriguing manner, in his unconventional, sometimes even iconoclastic, thinking. Bötker’s reasoning is sometimes controversial, but it reflects the author’s intellectual independence and his ability to bring fresh perspectives to the analysis of Estonian politics. ≈

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+ Peter Bötker Leviatan i arkipelagen. Staten, förvaltningen och samhället. Fallet Estland [Leviathan in the Archipelago: State, Administration, and Society: The Case of Estonia]. Stockholm: University of Stockholm, 2007.