How the concept of the ‘service state’ blocks democracy and promotes imperialism

A recent post about Kyrgyzstan on Instagram by the popular Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov brought a wave of accusations of imperialism upon him. In this critique, the emphasis was on the boorish way the blogger expressed these statements, while the ideological form of Varlamov’s argument, the concept of a ‘service country’ went almost unnoticed. Let us puzzle out what is wrong with this concept and why it gives rise to such ridiculous statements.

In his post, Varlamov is outraged that he is treated like a guest: he is advised to behave more modestly and not to provide unsolicited advice. He insists that he has the right to demand that his opinion be considered, since he is not a guest, but a customer: ‘People who come to your country should be treated not as guests, but as customers. They, after all, come to spend money and use your services. And the customer is always right.’

Varlamov’s main argument is based on the conceptualisation of the country as a service (further on in the post, he uses the metaphor of the country as a restaurant), a logical continuation of the concepts of the service-city and the service state, which he has promoted for many years.

At the same time, the view of the state (or city) as a service, existing to provide services to taxpayers, does not seem for some reason to most of us as odious as Varlamov’s Kyrgyz escapades. On the contrary, the concept of the service state has long been part of liberal common sense, the only alternative to which is an authoritarian barrack state in which officials dictate to people how to live. Even among those criticising Varlamov’s post, many believe it is wrong in form, but not in content, and share the concept of the service state (or city, or country).

However, looking closely at this market philosophy of politics, one can see that it hides anti-democratic attitudes within, and as a result, gives rise to this imperial rudeness.

The economisation of politics and democracy

The service city, the service state, and the service country – these are all elements of the same market conception of politics. Its essence lies in the fact that all people are economic agents, all relations between people are best described as commodity-money relations, and any social phenomenon is determined by the collision of supply and demand.

In this case, any government is in fact an enterprise, which must provide special services to the ‘population’ (a popular term for supporters of this concept), and taxpayers, in turn, can demand these services are of proper quality. These services include all the standard functions of the state; security, the creation and maintenance of major infrastructure (housing and communal services, energy, transport and waste), regulation and so on. In this conception, politics is reduced to relations between customers (i.e., citizens) and vendors (different state or government agencies) in a kind of oligopolistic market for public services.

How then to understand democracy? Exactly as it was defined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter: ‘…that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote’ (Schumpeter, J. A., Capitalism, socialism and democracy. Ekonomika, 1995, p. 355). The key word is here – competition; politicians compete for votes, and voters ‘buy politicians’. The conceptualization of democracy as a method and form of elite competition for power has proved to be extremely productive in empirical research, and at the same time ideologically convenient for the ruling elites themselves. The theory had a profound impact on the development of political science in the 1950s and 60s, and formed the basis of various kinds of ‘empirical’ or ‘minimalist’ theories of democracy. (See, for example, Dahl R. A., A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956; Downs A., An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Row, 1957; Lipset, S. M., Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1960). Thanks to this, today we predominantly think of democracy in terms of electoral competition.

As a result, we can see how the market conception of politics has entailed a depoliticizing revision of democracy. In fact, Schumpeter directly suggested abandoning illusions about the rule of the people, and recognizing that power is in the hands of the elites, with nothing able to be done about it. The best we can expect is competition between the elites themselves, which will keep them toned up and force them to improve the quality of government, in the same way that free competition between manufacturers in the market helps improve the quality of goods and general economic progress. The role of the voters – very busy people in industrial society – comes down to occasionally voting for rival politicians from the elite. Permanent democratic participation by citizens is not considered valuable, and hopes in the development of social relations and political consciousness through self-government are considered nonsense.

Why the service state is incompatible with self-government

Let’s turn from these generalised considerations to a concrete example from the author’s practice as a deputy. Imagine a typical urban activist, who demands changes from local authorities and the company managing the building regarding the upkeep of the communal courtyard, but is confronted with the fact that some neighbours have a different view of their communal yard and oppose her demands. One typical example is the dispute between supporters of the expansion of parking spaces and the supporters of green space and a ‘courtyard without cars’. Each side believes that they have the right to a quality courtyard maintenance service, referring to their status as taxpayers and demanding that public utilities entirely accept their point of view. As with Varlamov, each believe that on their side is good taste and the correct, competent decision.

In the end, if the residents of the block do not move from the concept of a ‘commodity courtyard’ and a ‘service town’ to understanding the courtyard as a common good, and the town as a place for collective self-government, then the officials win, making a decision that they benefit from while ignoring the residents, because they cannot agree and are politically divided. By insisting that the state is just a service, we confuse ourselves, because the neighbours may have different ideas to us about what is beautiful and reasonable, and agreeing with each other turns out more difficult than choosing a sausage in a supermarket.

This example shows a significant difference between the private consumption of goods and services and the management of goods in common. Landscaping the common courtyard of an apartment building differs from renovating and rearranging furniture in your own apartment, in that managing the courtyard requires considering the opinions and preferences of everyone who – just like you – considers themselves to be a co-owner. If you cannot agree with your neighbours as to how to divide the yard between parking spaces and greenery, then no service, for any money, will solve this problem democratically. Therefore, claims of low-quality service ‘for my taxes’ not only lose their credibility but lead to the loss of your share in a common good.

In other words, politics differs from market relations in that it deals with the public sphere, rather than private relations between buyer and seller, therefore implying agreement between ‘buyers’ that they want to ‘buy’. This violates the logic of the service city, because this very desired ‘quality of service’ becomes the subject of interpersonal disputes, which can no longer be treated as poor service quality. These disputes can be resolved either democratically, where a common goal (compromise or consensus) is found, or antidemocratically, whereby the common good is removed from some people in favour of others.

It seems that here, it is possible to successfully cultivate an economic image of joint ownership while retaining the market conception of politics. However, in practice, the extension of private consumer experience to the sphere of collective decisions on the management of common goods simply leads to their depoliticisation and privatisation. If neighbours cannot go beyond the consumer paradigm and start a democratic process, then they refuse to participate and delegate this task to someone else, minimising their costs. As a result, the management of goods in common is placed into the hands of a narrow group of individuals, and the goods themselves gradually lose their ‘common' (joint) status for the tenants and become alienated.

Thus, the concept of a city or a state as a service does not contribute to improving relations between citizens and power, as liberal common sense expects, but on the contrary, depoliticises people, making them defenseless against the private interests of officials and oligarchs. The model’s main flaw is that it does not require us to participate in joint pursuit of solutions and decision-making; it is enough to simply assess the quality of the state’s work by voting in elections, or by pushing a button in the Tsentr Gosuslug (municipal service centre), which encourages avoidance of participation in public life and promotes the illusion that the interests of citizens do not require collective action.

It is not surprising that our elites are promoting the concept of public services so energetically. Replacing collective self-government with individual consumption deprives us of the opportunity to agree on joint action, deepening our political helplessness and increasing the distance between elites and society. Therefore, in our government, there are many services, but there are literally no platforms for management of common goods. The government wants to work with us individually, as they would with clients, while for each of us, our relationship with it should be a private matter which cannot be discussed with others.

From service country to Empire

To conclude, let us see how the extension of the concept of a service state to a service country can lead to high-handed demands with an imperial flavour, similar to those made by Varlamov. This is the shortest logical transition in this story, which for some reason went unnoticed and uncomprehended in public debate.

With the concept of a service country, market logic extends from the relationship between citizen and state to relations between citizens and tourists arriving in the country. If the country is a service, the consumer of its services can demand anything of it that their means allow, because ‘the customer is always right’. In Varlamov’s opinion, Kyrgyz residents who refuse to take his criticism into account are making a mistake because they are losing his money, which he could have left in their economy. In his worldview, making money is the main guiding principle for any activity by people or communities.

Thus, the private preferences of Varlamov become in his eyes an imperative for the entire country, just as how, in the example of the courtyard, the activist’s private preferences become a direct guide to action by local authorities, since she pays them taxes. Varlamov, like our activist, does not believe that other people have the moral right to question his preferences, because he has money; I’m paying, what’s the problem?

This logic was developed a little earlier by his comrade Maxim Katz in his video about countries receiving large flows of immigrants from Russia. He argues that the influx of ‘educated and rich’ people from Russia to these countries will inevitably make for a better life there, because it will lead to strong economic growth. He specifies that even if in the short term this is fraught with inconveniences and soaring prices (for example, with rented housing), in the future it will pay off, with positive economic effects.

If we follow this reasoning consistently, we can rapidly conclude that any country should be focused on private investment by rich people, coming from the richest countries in the region, or the world in general. Furthermore, anyone who opposes this within the country is making a mistake and harming their country. It thus follows that rich people from rich countries have every right (and even, in a sense, an obligation) to determine what is preferable for your country and who is preventing these preferable outcomes in your society.

The democratic alternative is not to return to the barrack state-as-boss, of course. It is about looking at common goods as an object of self-government. In the case of countries, this means that they must belong to their own peoples, who can determine themselves when to bargain with tourists and when to reject their claims.

If Varlamov’s dream had come true, and instead of a self-governing people, he had faced atomized entrepreneurs, then he really would not have been a guest, but a consumer of services. Theoretically, any country can degrade into a set of public services, if the people do not resist. But to do so, we need to change from a private-consumer concept of politics to a democratic one.

Translated from Russian by Rachael Horwitz