Why don’t they pay their bills? Cultures of non-cooperation and distrust

I believe historical sociology is at its best not only when it can explain events in the past, but when it can elucidate long-term structures that continue to determine the limits (and potentials!) of collective action and choice in the present. I gained a slight hope that my dissertation may have accomplished a bit of that when I ran into this image produced by Albania’s electric distribution company CEZ Shpërndarje (recently privatized by the Albanian government and acquired by the powerful Czech energy company CEZ).

Albania, like many other developing and postsocialist countries, is notorious for its culture of non-payment of utility (and particularly electricity) bills. Regardless of the cheap moralism of Albanian media, pundits and politicians which with great ease denounce individuals, families and (especially) rural communities that fail to pay their electricity bills, the institutional, cultural, and plainly economic reasons for non-payment are complex and I would not venture in trying to give an explanation here.

But if at one level aggregate rates of utility payment represents an indicator of a population’s trust in and willingness to cooperate with state institutions (and given that until recently both electricity production and distribution were under the command of the state), then this map showing degrees of payment of electricity bills in three parts of Albania indicates how different this variable is in Albania’s major geographical regions. Orange regions represent areas where payment rates are above 80%, grey regions where they are between 50-80%, and black regions where more than 50% of consumers are in arrears. (The rates seem to represent regional averages, because the map makes no distinction between urban areas like Shkodër and rural regions like Tropoja or Mirdita which are in the black zone, or differences in rates between urban and rural areas in the orange and grey zones.)

The division almost completely matches my own regional analysis of state building and political mobilization. In my dissertation, I compare the travails of constructing national institutions of law and government in post-independence Albania, as the young state made its first efforts to establish national state authority and transition from the forms of decentralized power found during Albania’s rule by the Ottoman empire. In particular, I compare the dynamics of state expansion and rural mobilization in Albania’s pastoral and communally organized highlands (found mainly in the north of the country) with those in the peasant communities and landowner dominated lowlands. My regional map in some ways is similar to the one presented by CEZ Shpërndarje.

While the outcome I examine is the degree of radicalization of peasants (i.e., their support for radical political movements in the 1930s and 1940s), an offshoot of this work (and which I develop in a separate paper) examines how the interaction between the nationalizing state and political and legal institutions in rural communities helps determine the degree to which the state develops capacities of governance in that particular region. Here, I challenge traditional explanations which define state capacity mainly in its ability to use coercion, which I find is a necessary but insufficient indicator of actual capabilities of governance. For conceptual clarity, I separate coercive power from regulatory power, giving a pseudo-Foucauldian/Eliasian definition which defines power as the ability to engender discipline in a population by instilling through some kind of moral authority certain norms of conduct. Weber, for example, though better known for his definition of the state as a monopoly over the means of coercion, also talks extensively about how the moral authority of religion may at times be more powerful in regulating behavior than pure coercion. For the most part, a state’s capacity for engaging in such regulation is institutionalized in law, which represents not only a mechanism of coercion but also the state’s claim to a kind of moral (i.e., symbolic) authority over the social body (in the West, there is a long and grueling history of secular states usurping the power of law from the church and other religious bodies, with the final breakthrough taking place during the Reformation). We see that in the U.S. justice system every day – judges do not act as simple cold-hearted bureaucrats who mete out punishments but also represent a certain moral authority in society, symbolically representing “the people,” dressed up in their solemn garb and speaking with moral outrage when a defendant is found guilty of some hideous crime.

In any event, law is a powerful social institution, and it is especially powerful when it is embodied by the state (to drive the point again, it should be clear that as an historical sociologist, I take the unity between state and law to be an historical accomplishment specific to the West, not as a universal fact to be taken for granted). And I argue that the political struggle to appropriate the power of law was especially contentious in post-Ottoman states like Albania (and one might add many other cases: Egypt, Tunisia, even modern Turkey itself), given the Ottoman empire’s long-held distinction between state (administrative) law and what Caglar Keyder calls the “law of communities.” In the Ottoman empire, while “state” law regulated domains like rights over land and taxation, what we would today classify as “civil” affairs were mainly regulated by local institutions such as religious judges, priests, and community elders. The Ottoman empire was unlike the emerging nation-states of the West because it had no unitary legal system in the institutional and in the territorial sense; it was certainly not a lawless society but its legal order followed a rationality that was more complex, more locally and socially embedded, and, to follow Weber, based on the principle of substantive, rather than procedural, justice, and thus in both logic and practice dissimilar from that of the West.

In my paper on state building in the Albanian highlands, I show how the young Albanian state’s efforts to establish legal authority in the region was not only politically determined but also a cultural (symbolic) struggle. The highlands, having enjoyed a high degree if political autonomy and self-regulation through a long period of history (and at times also escaping the demands of Ottoman state law), had in the twentieth century its institutions of local governance confront directly the rising national authorities of the capital. Initially, Tirana was accommodating and in some ways replicated the model of divided jurisdiction which existed under the Ottoman empire. But then the new state began to imitate the model of a centralized nation-state: introducing in particular a unitary Penal and Civil Code, which were to be the same throughout the entire territory of the country. At that point the political attitudes of state elites towards the highlands shifted dramatically – they broke old compacts and agreements with highland communities vowing to respect local laws and, moreover, began denigrating local practices as reflections of cultural primitivity requiring a heavy handed approach by the state.

Not surprisingly, the approach failed and increasingly drove the highlanders away from cooperation with the state – tax collection rates fell, crime increased, forced labor mobilization was introduced for public works and attempts to introduce schooling failed as well in the 1930s as the population became increasingly distrustful of national authorities. All of this fed into the discourse – which become increasingly prevalent among political and secular cultural elites in the 1930s – of the highlands being lawless, primitive, and backward. Increasing isolation also helped further impoverish an already poor region, adding to the difficulties of governance, which the Albanian state mainly accomplished through the use of spies, informants and locally recruited (i.e., paid) loyalists who enjoyed little respect among the local population. Ultimately, highlanders saw little benefit in cooperating with national authorities while the state’s pressures were increasingly helping to erode local institutions, including those of local law.

The situation was very different in the lowlands. Here, local Ottoman judges known as kadı had long served the function of distributing justice, based on a combination of Ottoman and Islamic legal tradition. When the state began to support the efforts of landowners to strip local peasants of their traditional subsistence rights (which guaranteed them rights to the land and its products regardless of formal ownership), in their efforts to shift towards a more capitalist-driven agriculture, the peasants did what they had always done – they turned to the judges for redress and protection. The struggle over land in the lowlands escalated throughout the 1930s and was in the 1940s probably one of the main causes which led the Albanian peasantry to support the Albanian communist movement, whose central political platform was agrarian reform and land redistribution (and which was key in a country with little modern industry and a minuscule urban proletariat).

Most importantly, the peasant struggle over land involved peasants engaging extensively with the newly established institutions of the national state: local prefects, judges, and tax collectors. This interaction did not mean that peasants simply subjected to the demands of the state, but the ongoing political struggle produced both deep ties with public authorities as allies against the encroachments of landowners as well as a political culture of engagement which was never successfully implanted in the highlands.

Does the map simply reflect this long history? Yes and no. My narrative only covers the period until the 1940s so what happens during the era of communist rule is certainly important in this case (also since it was the communist regime which built Albania’s electricity and distribution industries) as well as the impact of Albania’s economic collapse in the late 1980s and neoliberal reform of the 1990s and the 2000s. But looking at a graph like this, where simple economics or divisions between rural and urban regions cannot explain the patterns, there is something to be said about the role of the early historical interactions between local populations, the nascent state, political struggles, and trust, and how that may reflect presently on things like the payment of an electric bill.

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About Besnik Pula

Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech. Specializes in political economy, comparative development and postsocialist transformations. All views expressed here are strictly my own.

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