International Sociology and International Sociology Reviews

Topic of the Month, October 2022

‘The power of moral justice’ is our Topic of the Month for October 2022. On this topic, enjoy Free Access to this article by Balihar Sanghera (School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent, UK) published in International Sociology, Justice, power and informal settlements: Understanding the juridical view of property rights in Central Asia. Read on to know more about the author’s trajectory and work.

Balihar Sanghera

Why are you working on this topic? Could you share an experience, a fact, or a person who made you get engaged in that research?

B Sanghera: The topic became central to understanding how legal and judicial structures had underpinned the expansion of rent-seeking activities in the post-Soviet space. In the Soviet Union, most sources of rent were criminalised, because they were viewed as being unproductive and parasitic. After 1991, neoliberal reforms changed the nature of property rights to allow individuals to speculate, rent and dispose of assets at a profit. Unearned income and rent-seeking became normalised. Using the case study of informal settlements in Central Asia, the article explored how judges often protected and depoliticised the rights of the propertied class to extract rent over the rights of the propertyless class to use land to enhance their well-being. The rule of law, the judiciary’s neutrality and the protection of property rights became moral discourses that enabled class interests to be misrecognised.

In the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many poor rural people migrated to large cities in search of better economic opportunities. Lacking cheap rental accommodation, some were forced to occupy vacant and idle land to erect adobe houses. Their options were limited because post-Soviet states had stopped building new apartments. The housing market became commodified and exclusionary, because private developers largely catered to the wants of affluent and middle-class groups, rather than the needs of the poor and the working class. Real estate was a lucrative rent-seeking business. Rising apartment prices and rents facilitated the unjust enrichment of the propertied class. The housing market left the rural poor to fend for themselves, either rent over-priced apartments, or seize land and build their own homes.

The transition from state socialism to neoliberal capitalism had created a rentier class, who obtained income or rent merely by virtue of having property rights to scarce assets that others wanted and needed but lacked. Their income was unearned because they contributed nothing to wealth creation. For classical political economists, ‘free market’ meant markets free of rent that required state action against rentier interests. Neoliberalism had reversed this understanding. For neoliberal advocates, the ‘free market’ meant individuals were free to extract rent without facing any state control.

Other economic sectors also became sites of rent extraction. Borrowers in the credit market faced exorbitant interest (rent on money), enriching domestic and foreign bankers and microfinance institutions. In the natural resource sector (in particular oil, gas and rare minerals), transnational corporations extracted huge rent largely at the expense of host states and local communities. The rise of the platform economy facilitated tech giants to obtain unwarranted fees and commissions from the business community. Internet and mobile providers required users to make monthly payments, or be cut off from social life.

For many, rentierism has produced homelessness, dispossession, precarity, inequality, powerlessness and ecocide. Nevertheless, it was justified and normalised as how market economies work. The neoliberal regime of private property rights was defended by international donors and financial institutions, who insisted on good governance, namely the rule of law, juridical independence and the right to property. In articulating values of professionalism, neutrality and univeralisalism, the judges in my article feigned disinterestedness, and misrecognised the situation to defend the interests of the rentier class over the well-being of the poor. Their distorted class sentiments also generated an image of the poor as undeserving of justice.

The postdisciplinary works of Andrew Sayer got me engaged in this topic. Sayer’s moral economy perspective has contributed much to my understanding of social and economic life. This perspective seeks to describe and examine how economic relations and institutions are usually outcomes of both power and morality, and to evaluate their effects on people’s well-being. I have pursued this topic further in a recent book co-authored with Elmira Satybaldieva on the nature of rentier capitalism in Central Asia.

What would you emphasize about your academic trajectory? Can you highlight which have been your academic positions, universities, awards, departments and research centers?

B Sanghera: I taught at the Novosibirsk State University (Russia) and the American University – Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan) for four years, and then in 2004 moved to the University of Kent (UK), where I am a senior lecturer in sociology at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research.