Naked Greed: Putin nothing more than a gangster

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R. Bruce Anderson
R. Bruce Anderson

As a first-year student many years ago, I can remember taking my first economics class, and being confronted by the basic law of capitalism. Capital success depended largely on one major factor: constant expansion. This was true in terms of small businesses (a constant expansion of the customer base); large businesses (a constant expansion of outlets and all the support logistics that went with it); and large corporations and holding entities (a constant expansion of diversity of goods and services).

Under honest democratic regimes, savvy capitalists thrive. Government is a more-or-less fair regulator of this expansion. They do well under these types of systems because government will act to clear away hindrances to honest profit-taking, stabilize their worst impulses, and provide law and a court system to settle disputes. Raw as it was, the ancient Roman Republic is a decent example of this.

Under dictatorships, though, the worst tendencies of capitalism run amok. Instead of acting in good faith, working through transparent contracts with others, and being held to legal standards, there’s a free-for-all mêlée of snatching up everything in sight: naked greed. Dictators and oligarchies favor one set of grabbers over another. Instead of settling wrangles in a courtroom, the disputants simply pay off the powers that be and have their competitors jailed – or worse. And they do not reinvest.

When the old USSR failed (for reasons too complex to go into in a short essay), the rotten old regime was replaced by a rotten – but quite different – new one. Rule of law had collapsed, and the Russian nation increasingly owed any stability it had to a class of organized crime combines assembled to steal what riches remained. Instead of focusing on honest competition and productivity (the mainstays of classical capitalism) there was a violent scramble for advantage - more Al Capone than Adam Smith.

The problem is that there’s only so much to rip off. As productivity drops (as it must, where there’s little incentive to stay in a rigged game) the savage battle for what remains has smaller and smaller rewards. So, they turn outward. “Kleptocracies” – where theft replaces honest yield – almost always turn to conquest. We’re reminded not of Caesar, but of Caligula. As world figure, Vladimir Putin plays as a dreadful George Washington and much better as “Scarface.”

The Kremlin, these days, looks a lot less like the august Roman Senate and a good bit more like the “Bada Bing” Club - snarling goodfellas with broken noses leering over a map of Eastern Europe, shoving markers around with their sawed-off shotguns and looking to roll into new territories, guns blazing.

Putin, as with Capone, is trapped. There’s nothing left to steal “back home.” What Putin and Capone share is that they were and are basically running complex pyramid schemes to stay in power – paying off supporters with the cash flow from earlier victims (aka “investors”). This kind of cycle has only one endpoint. It blows up in their faces if they cannot keep up. Expand or die.

There is little question of Putin’s intentions, which are out of his hands, anyway – he has people to pay off. Capone eventually met his end by going so far off the rails that the highest authorities took an interest, and the hope is that Putin has inflamed the same kind of angst in the international community. Capone is reported to have been a charming guy, when dealing with the opposition. Putin is, too. He’s a suave, smooth-talking international racketeer, but a mobster all the same.

All of this would be a minor issue, generally, except for the fact that this is the Russian Federation, not a local gang, and they have The Bomb. If Al Capone had had nuclear devices fighting for booze turf in Chicago in the 20’s, the Great Lakes might be a still-smoking radioactive desert.

Putin has to be stopped - and stopped now.

R. Bruce Anderson is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay, Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics and Miller Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Florida Southern College. He is also a columnist for The Ledger and political consultant and on-air commentator for WLKF Radio.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Naked Greed: Putin nothing more than a gangster

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