The wage arrears crisis has been one of the biggest problems facing contemporary Russia. At its peak, it has involved some $10 billion worth of unpaid wages and has affected approximately 70 percent of the workforce. Yet public protest in the country has been rather limited. The relative passivity of most Russians in the face of such desperate circumstances is a puzzle for students of both collective action and Russian politics. In Protest and the Politics of Blame, Debra Javeline shows that to understand the Russian public's reaction to wage delays, one must examine the ease or difficulty of attributing blame for the crisis.
Previous studies have tried to explain the Russian response to economic hardship by focusing on the economic, organizational, psychological, cultural, and other obstacles that prevent Russians from acting collectively. Challenging the conventional wisdom by testing these alternative explanations with data from an original nationwide survey, Javeline finds that many of the alternative explanations come up short. Instead, she focuses on the need to specify blame among the dizzying number of culprits and potential problem solvers in the crisis, including Russia's central authorities, local authorities, and enterprise managers. Javeline shows that understanding causal relationships drives human behavior and that specificity in blame attribution for a problem influences whether people address that problem through protest.
Debra Javeline is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Rice University.
|Publisher:||University of Michigan Press|
|Series:||Interests, Identities, and Institutions in Comparative Politics Series|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)|
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Protest and the Politics of Blame: the Russian Response to Unpaid Wages
By Debra Javeline
University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2003 Debra Javeline
All right reserved.
Chapter 1 - Why Blame Attribution Matters for Protest
Why do some individuals and groups address their grievances through collective action, while others endure their situation passively? One explanation rests on the complexity of the grievance. If a grievance is complicated, having numerous causes and numerous potential problem solvers, it is difficult to single out any one cause or remedy and to channel demands accordingly. Simplifying becomes key. Those among the aggrieved who specify a source of blame for the problem are more likely to take action than those who attribute blame vaguely or broadly.
Wage arrears in Russia is a case in point. The potential causes of unpaid wages are numerous, making it difficult to identify a specific source of blame. A minority of Russians nevertheless have done so, and this minority has been more likely to participate in strikes and protests to demand back payment of wages than the vast majority of Russians who are unspecific in their attributions of blame. For the majority, collective action has been thwarted by uncertainty about whom to address.
In this chapter, I elaborate on these points and present the major hypotheses to be tested in the rest of the book. I begin with a brief description of existing hypotheses for protest and passivity in Russia and of why an explanation focusing on blame attribution complements or performs better than these alternatives. I discuss how the costs of collective action can be affected by variation in both the complexity of a grievance and the attribution of blame, and I discuss how consideration of blame attribution can enhance the existing body of theoretical literature on collective action. I end with brief discussions of measurement, especially the slippery variables of protest and wage arrears, and methods for testing the hypotheses.
This study's major empirical finding is that Russians who most clearly and specifically attribute blame for their grievances have been more active in strikes, demonstrations, or other acts of protest than Russians who do not attribute blame specifically. The vast majority of Russians fall in this latter category and therefore have not taken collective action.
This explanation is not the one most commonly offered to explain Russian responses to the wage arrears crisis, and it is also not the one most commonly emphasized in broader theories about political mobilization. Most explanations instead focus on the economic, psychological, cultural, and organizational obstacles that have prevented Russian workers from acting collectively. These will be described and tested more fully in chapter 5 but deserve brief mention here.
Perhaps the most common explanation offered is that many workers have lacked alternative job opportunities and have been too dependent on their current places of employment for nonwage benefits such as housing, child care, and medical treatment to risk losing their jobs as a result of protest activity (Crowley 1997). Worker passivity is motivated by Russians' extreme poverty. Still other explanations propose the precise opposite and practically deny that wage delays have constituted a real crisis. Thanks to a shadow economy that is said to account from anywhere between a quarter and a half of Russia's gross domestic product, workers have been living much better than official data suggest and have had little need for their wages. These explanations obviously contradict one another: on the one hand, Russians are assumed too desperate to protest; on the other, they are assumed too well-off to protest. The data presented to support either assumption have so far been unsystematic and weak.
Each explanation also embodies its own paradox. If workers' dependence on their enterprises causes passivity, then worker independence should cause protest, but it seems more plausible that workers who are independent--that is, workers who have not been getting nonwage benefits from their enterprise and could land another job relatively easily--would just take that other job instead of protesting. Conversely, if workers' ability to survive on alternative sources of income and food causes passivity, then why would these workers remain employed in their first jobs? By this logic, the only workers who should remain on enterprise payrolls are those who fare unsuccessfully in the informal economy and desperately need their wages, so the level of worker protest in Russia should be much higher than it has been. Furthermore, there is no necessary reason why alternative sources of income should make Russians accept the loss of prior earnings to which they are legitimately entitled. It seems equally if not more plausible that most Russians would still want money they are owed, regardless of other earnings, and would perhaps make demands to this effect.
Some social-psychological explanations of worker passivity--such as the contention that most workers disbelieve in the efficacy of protest because most of their jobs are strategically unimportant--hold more promise but ultimately also come up short. First, the sense of efficacy has been almost universally low in Russia--so low, in fact, that even if all efficacious individuals protested, they would still comprise only a minority of the relatively small number of participants in strikes and protests. Second, workers in some notoriously active professions, such as mining, nuclear power, and air traffic, have clearly benefited from their strategic leverage, but workers in other active professions, such as teaching, have persisted even as they repeatedly reveal their lack of strategic leverage. Russian schools have closed with regularity, disrupting children's learning and preparation for the future but hardly bringing cities to their knees as power shortages do. As a result, teachers have won few concessions. Nevertheless, teacher strikes have continued.
Still other explanations for responses to the wage arrears crisis focus on organizational dilemmas of Russian workers (Ashwin 1999). Workers might be ready to take to the streets, but they have just not been mobilized effectively because of incompetent or politically compromised trade unions. This hypothesis finds a good deal of empirical support. Official Russian trade unions have depended on the good graces of the federal government to retain assets and privileges, and this dependence has interfered with the unions' ability to champion workers' rights and court workers' support. However, the failures of Russian trade unions are probably not the only explanation for worker behavior because it remains necessary to understand variation in protest and passivity that is independent of trade union initiation or participation and why independent trade unions or other groups have not stepped in to fill the organizational void.
In addition to trade unions, other supposed opposition groups are also charged with failing to organize worker protest. Most notably, the once logical candidate, the Communist Party, has seemed devoid of a mission or alternative program that speaks to workers' interests and rallies workers to action. This hypothesis too finds a good deal of empirical support. Agitation from party activists, when attempted, has often encouraged Russians to protest, but the attempts have been relatively rare.
Organizational arguments are valuable because they remind us that certain tasks are difficult for individuals to perform alone. In this sense, organizational arguments are compatible with the explanation about blame attribution described in greater detail later in this chapter. Blame attribution can be a very difficult task, and it becomes much more difficult without an effective organization to lend assistance. Organizations have played a negative role in the Russian public response to wage arrears because they have not taken on the task of helping Russians attribute blame for the problem, identifying the most important of a daunting array of causes and thereby framing the problem in a way that people can comprehend. Organization leaders have pointed fingers and made excuses and justifications, but they have not explained the essentials of how wages came to be delayed and how they can now be paid. Without clarity on these matters, Russians have been unlikely to take to the streets.
Many other factors have featured prominently in discussions of the Russian wage arrears crisis and the related public response. These factors include the sense of civic duty to protest, moral duties like the Hippocratic oath to stay on the job, the size of the Russian workplace, and interest or disinterest in politics. Many of these arguments are useful for limited cases, but many are not supported by the empirical evidence. Those that are more useful are generally compatible with my explanation about specificity in blame attribution. I test these and other alternative arguments more fully in chapter 5.
Issue Difficulty and Blame Attribution
A better explanation for why some Russians engage in collective action and others do not focuses on the ability of the aggrieved to specify blame for their problem. Those who attribute blame specifically are more likely to take action, but these individuals are few in number. Most Russians do not attribute blame specifically and therefore endure their grievances passively. Part of the reason for Russians' lack of specificity in attributing blame is the complex nature of the grievance at hand. This section will explore in greater detail the connections among issue difficulty, blame attribution, and protest.
As chapter 2 will demonstrate, wage arrears in Russia is a complicated issue that could quite reasonably be attributed to a variety of sources, including the federal government, local governments, managers of enterprises and organizations, foreign governments and international organizations, the aggrieved Russians themselves, and many other people, institutions, and circumstances. Sometimes these sources, like the government and enterprises, contribute directly to the crisis because they owe wages directly to workers. Sometimes they play a more indirect role. For example, the government's failure to pay for goods and services prohibits some enterprises from paying workers, while enterprises' failure to pay taxes results in a budget deficit and prohibits the government from paying workers. The complexity is magnified because, in addition to these broad categories like the federal government, there are many individuals and institutions within the broad categories to whom blame could reasonably be attributed, like the executive who historically calls the shots in Russia; his advisers and cabinet members, who are charged with resolving the crisis; the legislature that sets policy, and so on.
Objectively, there may be a "true" story that would implicate one of these sources over the others or that would weave together the contributions of several culprits for a more nuanced multidimensional explanation. For the purposes of protest, however, objective reality is less important than perception. A very complicated issue is unlikely to inspire much collective action if the public perceives the issue as complicated, but a very complicated issue that the public perceives as straightforward and attributable to a single cause can indeed inspire action. If Russians perceive that a single person or institution is the source of their misery and/or the potential source of a solution, they are far more likely to protest than if they perceive that blame is widely dispersed and difficult to pinpoint. In the case of a complicated issue like wage arrears, however, the objective and the subjective are mutually reinforcing. Wage arrears is in fact a complicated economic problem, and it is perceived that way by most Russians. This perception leads to an inability to identify an appropriate target for protest and a generally passive response to hardship.
This study's major theoretical finding, therefore, is that issue difficulty, or the complexity of a grievance, and specificity in blame attribution play roles in collective action decisions. The more complicated the grievance, the less likely it will lead to mobilization. For any particular grievance, complicated or simple, the more specifically the aggrieved attribute blame, the more likely they are to mobilize. In this study, I will test only the latter proposition, but it is useful to consider them both here to understand the causal mechanisms that connect blame to protest.
Blame and the Costs of Collective Action
Why does the difficulty or complexity of a grievance matter for protest? Complexity in a grievance raises the cost of collective action because of the additional time, energy, and even money needed to engage in an information search, sort through the many potential causes of the grievance and the many potential problem solvers, and narrow the field to a concrete target. Complexity also raises the risks of collective action because of the greater uncertainty that the specified target is indeed the guilty party and/or capable of delivering the sought-after rewards. To the usual concerns about retaliation and ineffectiveness, complexity adds concerns about time wasted barking up the wrong tree and the possible need to bark up multiple trees. Complexity in a grievance can even preempt the cost-benefit calculations in collective action decisions if the aggrieved are unable to specify a source of blame and target of action. The cost-benefit calculation makes sense only in relation to a target. One target, like the federal government, might be powerful and spiteful and likely to retaliate, whereas another target, like a local government or an employer, might be weak or sympathetic and unlikely to retaliate. One target might have tremendous resources at its disposal, whereas another target might not. The more complicated the issue or grievance, the more likely the cost-benefit calculation will be unmanageable or simply unattempted.
On the other hand, all grievances, regardless of their objective complexity, can be interpreted simply, and some individuals do achieve a level of specificity in their attribution of blame, even for a complicated problem. These individuals are most easily mobilized for collective action. Specificity in blame attribution lowers the cost of collective action for the aggrieved in two ways. First, individuals who make specific attributions of blame for their grievances have fewer information costs because they assess the risks and rewards of protest mostly in relation to the single target they specify. Lacking specificity in blame attribution, other individuals must assess the risks and rewards of protesting against multiple targets and/or the risks and rewards of a vaguely defined protest with an unnamed target. This information gathering is more time-consuming, potentially futile, and therefore costly. Second, individuals who make specific attributions of blame are likely to have fewer organizational and opportunity costs associated with the proposed form of collective action since the action would be focused and finite. Unspecific attributors are likely to experience higher costs because their proposed protests would be directed at multiple targets, requiring more complex organization and a greater commitment of time. Of course, unspecific attributors could just join a protest that focused on one target over another, but relative to their more specific peers, they are unlikely to do so because the perceived effects of the protest are less clear. Unspecific attributors would first have to be convinced not only that collective action will yield benefits but also that collective action against the specific chosen target will yield benefits. Individuals who make specific attributions of blame for their problems are already persuaded that they have come to the right place and are thus more receptive to mobilizing efforts against their specified culprit or problem solver.
The incentives to free ride, or avoid the costs of protest while sharing in the benefits, are still high for both Russians who are specific in their attributions of blame and Russians who are not. Protest is a low probability event, and all Russians, like aggrieved individuals everywhere, are relatively unlikely to take to the streets to redress their grievances. However, given the lower costs faced by Russians who are specific in their attributions of blame, they are more easily convinced by mobilizers to take action.
Variation in Grievances and Variation among People
In developing this argument, I am taking an in-depth look at the content of the grievance or potential protest issue. This is a departure from much of the collective action literature, which assumes a relative equivalence of grievances as potential mobilizers and focuses on the mechanism by which mobilization occurs. Few would argue that all grievances are alike or that collective action is not issue driven. Rather, the role of grievances in collective action decisions is downplayed or ignored in favor of discussions about the costs and benefits of collective action, organizational difficulties, opportunities provided by the political system, and the like. I attempt to fill this gap by specifying how grievances differ in facilitating or inhibiting protest. I also attempt to specify how individuals and groups differ in their responses to different types of grievances.
The idea that both grievances and people are heterogenous and that this heterogeneity is meaningful for political behavior is a familiar point in other fields. Specifically, Carmines and Stimson (1980, 1989) show that issues matter for voting decisions and that they matter both for their objective and subjective differences. Objectively, some issues may provoke reaction more easily than others because they appeal at the gut level and require little if any contextual knowledge and reasoning ability to understand, while other issues require both contextual knowledge and reasoning ability as well as a certain degree of political sophistication. By this criterion, Carmines and Stimson show that racial desegregation is a relatively easy or uncomplicated issue and therefore drives voting decisions more frequently than relatively intricate issues like the Vietnam War. Carmines and Stimson also argue, however, that there is a subjective dimension to issue heterogeneity and that circumstance sometimes influences whether an issue is perceived as complicated or simple. "Racial desegregation could be complex and Vietnam simple if the issues had evolved that way in the political system and if voters saw them that way. All issues have intrinsically simple and complex facets" (1980, 81).
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