Infrapolitics, Russian style

making life habitable

The art of making life habitable is only possible through mutuality and reciprocity


In my third post on the topic ‘people as the new oil’ (the two previous posts are here, and here), I make use of James Scott’s ideas of infrapolitics and Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadism to talk more about everyday forms of resistance to the ‘extractive turn’ – the idea now widely discussed, even among elites, that Russians are ‘sponges’ in two senses – to be wrung dry to fill the hole in the country’s finances, and are uniquely capable of absorbing such punishment. After all they are incapable of organising real opposition to hold their leaders to account, and in any case – they can retreat into some kind of dystopian subsistence existence, supplementing poverty wages with their little garden plots, with a ‘grift’ here and there, and a tiny state pension if they can live that long.

Just yesterday, Vladislav Inozemtsev published a long discussion of the completely alien concept, in his view, of the responsive, social security state in Russia. In it he makes very detailed comparisons of how, even in the US, combating poverty is a huge budgetary priority for the government. One point though, stick out for me,  that Russian politics lacks entirely the relationship of obligation to an electorate. As I have written previously, we need to go further and highlight the increasingly open contempt by politicians and elites for ‘ordinary people’. There is an increasing rhetoric of the unworthy poor in Russia. People who can barely feed and clothe themselves are personal failures.

Perhaps it would be inevitable that after the trauma of the collapse of the USSR, a decade of extreme economic and political dislocation, a kind of Social Darwinism would emerge among the winners of post-socialist transformation to help them psychologically cope with their good fortune. They are ‘better people’ because they adapted, and thus those that failed to ‘adapt’, deserve to die off, as a dead end species of post-Homo Soveticus. Perhaps I push this idea too far, but it doesn’t seem too out of place in the light of a ‘serious’ sociological conversation about how ‘Soviet people lacked all moral compass‘.  Homo Soveticus casts the USSR as creating an impoverished moral personhood, cowed by the punitive Stalinist state, distrusting of all but those in one’s inner circle: ‘servile double-thinkers

Thank goodness for people like Greg Yudin (responding here to the questionable methods used to prove that Russians pine for Stalin), and Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, who thoroughly demolishes the rhetoric of Russians as trapped in a totalitarian mindset. The self-justification of the  economic fortunes of the winners of transition are linked to their political ideology – the poor are not only guilty of being poor, they’re also to blame for the failure of democratisation in Russia! As Sharafutdinova continues: ‘Russian intellectuals who disagree with the current political system “other” the Russian masses. Instead of building political bridges and coalitions, intellectuals frequently end up blaming the masses, without whom long-term political change is impossible.’

There is of course reason to agree with one aspect of the ‘Homo Soveticus’ idea – that a violent coercive system has an effect on society (and individuals) long after that system (Stalinism) is consigned to history. Yes, there are aspects of today’s Russia that indicate political and social disconnection, that people expect little but more corruption from the powers-that-be, that they understand the massive brutalising potential of the state (this May Day’s beating of protesters by police emboldened by the new privilege not to have to wear identification is a case in point). But for me it’s the opposite conclusion – not that the Soviet legacy (and authoritarian redux) means that people distrustful or passive, or fearful, but that they respond in an everyday, ordinary rational way to the uncaring, crony-capitalised venal elites. One of the main ideas I put forward throughout my own research is that in the face of an state abdicating social welfare, people more than ‘make do’ by falling back on tried and tested resources, like the garden plot, like close-knit networks of mutual aid. More than that, they will, given time, more than adapt to dysfunctional systems, but start to inhabit the nooks and crannies – making a virtue even, of that dysfunction – hence my long-standing interest in the ‘shadow’ or informal economy. If ‘just coping’ or ‘getting by’ is hiding in a burrow, then more than coping is building a house – inhabiting a space, no matter how inhospitable.

Even the most marginalised and ‘weak’ people are not as passive as they seem. Over the last three decades people have got used to the informal, networked way Russia is governed – capitalism without capitalists, rule without law, power without responsibility. Samuel Greene argues that where people are forced to adapt to the informalized political and economic social relations, they then actually resist the very institution building and formal bureaucratic ways of ‘normal’ functioning states. This paradox can be expressed simply – Russians want more and less state at the same time and this is due to both socialist-era legacies of paternalism and the traumatic post-socialist transition.

It is ironic that privileged observers view ordinary Russians as ‘sponges’, or ‘bydlo’ while daily enjoying the services of informal workers.  Whether it’s nannies or house cleaners, plumbers fixing heating systems, or economic migrants building homes, modest yet cumulatively powerful economic agency is exercised by the vulnerable in escaping the clutches of the extractive state. The informal economy is of course no less exploitative or supportive of inequality, but it indicates the fundamental weakness of the state.

In thinking about the ‘minor warfare’ people wage against the quantifying state, Deleuze called this ‘nomadism’, and it could well describe the mobile tactics and ‘lines of flight’ many ordinary Russians take. Stuck between penury and the extractive state, the only option for many is movement – making use of those ‘weak ties’ to work a hack here and there – siphoning off company fuel for private use, filching some stationary from work, or that oldest forms of nomadism – the informal taxi-driving that supports a million families. Even with increasingly technological ‘fixes’ to stop the informational holes into which millions of people disappear to reappear in informal economic spaces, niches and hacks will arise. For example, while the Russian state cannot yet link up the database of insured drivers to its impressive network of road cameras, at some point this technological issue will be solved. However, there is already a nomadic hack available to every driver, from covering one’s numberplate with transparent shoe polish which ensures a thick layer of dust will immediately adhere (along with numerous other ingenious tricks), to simply using the inefficiencies of the Russian postal system to challenge the legality of the fine. Not to mention a very Russian phenomenon where it’s not uncommon for officials that are tasked with reinforcing the state control to simultaneously advise ordinary people on how to avoid state penalties, out of compassion and solidarity.

A second perspective is to adapt James Scott’s idea of the infrapolitical: ‘the … substratum of those more visible forms of action that attract most scholarly attention’. Scott argues that as “long as we confine our conception of the political to activity that is openly declared, we are driven to conclude that subordinate groups essentially lack a political life” (1990, 199). Many aspects of people’s non-registration of economic activities qualify as the not-quite political. Scott challenges scholarship on dissent to reassess the definition of interventions in the public sphere (we might add, to reassess the idea of the public sphere itself). His contributions include a critique of hegemony and therefore false consciousness, as well as the “safety valve” theory—the notion, for instance, that the patriotic politics around Crimea serve as a distraction from quotidian woes.

Infrapolitics are nurtured by ‘hidden transcripts’. The more the ‘public transcript’ is seen as hypocritical the more it is likely to generate a rich and ‘hidden’ alternative. For example, cynical talk about the importance of the development of human capital and productivity while at the same time hearing that ‘state owes you nothing’, intensifies the creation of counter discourses. Indignities lead to ‘rehearsals’ of injustice and in turn reinforce ‘nomadic’ actions. An enormous wave of memes criticising the pension reforms, sometimes humorously, but often pointedly, are shared through the safety of encrypted messaging services. Two different viral examples illustrate the pointed politicising of the private virtual spaces of dissent. The first is a vlog poem, written and performed by a Urals nurse. Railing against her tiny salary and her inability to adequately feed and nurture her child she asks: ‘Why do you dislike the people so much, they who feed your righteous arses.’ The second is also a video, by a regional Communist deputy, but disseminated anonymously via Whatsapp and other encrypted messaging services. A parody of the presidential New Year’s message he addresses the viewer ‘friends, we have had a difficult year, like many before it. And the problem here is of course not the Western sanctions… not the ‘lazy people’… but the shameless and deceitful authorities’. One possible state response is to try to shut down the most reliable motor of the infrapolitical – the internet. But as with other authoritarian technological fixes, there will always be hacks, and it’s not even clear if firewalling is possible.

The point is not that there is some inflection point where rage converts to rebellion, merely that hidden transcripts reinforce the logic of nomadic, state-distancing moments, like refusing to register as self-employed, like evading a traffic fine, or just having the courage to openly discuss politics for the first time with acquaintances.  Each element gives the other traction. Even though nomadism and infrapolitics work insidiously, they have political significance because they continuously prod at the limits of the publically sayable. While the idea of the state as abstract, distant, and an uncaring entity is ingrained, so is the tactic of nomadism. Recently Vladislav Surkov turned the phrase ‘deep state’ into ‘deep people’ in his eulogy on the greatness of Russia’s system. He might be right about the primacy of the Russian people, but he seems to have forgotten the very Russian saying, ‘still waters run deep’ [в тихом омуте черти водятся].

[a shorter version of this post previously appeared at under the heading ‘People as the New Oil?’  in English and in Russian ]

Challenging the view that Russians are ‘passive’.

uncollected rubbish

uncollected rubbish from a designated municipal site.


In a previous post I talked about the phrase: ‘people are Russia’s replacement oil’ as representing a new extractive shift to harvesting economic rents in more intensively from ordinary people. In this post I want to talk about liberal pundits’ interpretation of this turn of events. A much truncated version of what I wrote below was part of a short piece for

But before that just a quick recap on the reality of ‘making ends meet’ for many Russians that I talked about previously. Ordinary people are suffering from a decade-long decline in their living standards putting them in a position of extreme want. Published average incomes may look survivable, but the reality is that, like in other unequal countries, such statistics are misleading not least because of the distorting effect of a small number of very high incomes. In 2018 average gross wages were 40000 rubles a month or $560. Whether this figure is fiddled or not, in any case it ignores the large effect of lower informal (undeclared) incomes, and the imbalance between big city state company employment and the rest.  Independent polling indicates that the ‘real’ average pay was less than 20000 rubles ($305). $300 is not even a subsistence wage. Even adding to it a lower secondary wage, a family is left virtually nothing for clothing, medicines, travel or spending on children. When trying to measure relative poverty a robust measure is how much a family spends on food and other essentials. The open acknowledgement of the extreme poverty in which many Russians life can be seen in political events like the strange passing of a law allowing Russians to collect fallen trees, ‘for their own needs’.

Influential independent political observers like Valerii Solovei and Vladislav Inozemtsev draw pessimistic conclusions about the ‘extractive turn’. Mostly they view their fellow citizens as passive and lacking any agency, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – the massive informal economy that sustains livelihoods and habitability above the bare subsistence level and is seriously disruptive to the state. Solovei paints a vivid picture of Russians as passive sponges to be wrung dry in any way possible by an emboldened state – where can people hide from taxes on fuel and cigarettes? (I guess you can anticipate my answer to him – in both cases it’s in the interstices of the informal economy). To be fair to him, he at least strikes a warning note: history shows that eventually people get fed up and social strife is the result. However, his remedy is predictably unimaginative, a bourgeois democratic revolution (without any messy involvement of ordinary people) such as what ‘could have been’ in 2011-12. But how realistic is political change without the engagement of people beyond metropolises? And how would a bourgeois democracy he envisage address the enormous structural inequalities and imbalances Russia faces? Doesn’t this approach just reproduce a ‘two Russias’ perspective so criticized by other observers such as Ilya Matveev? We can see traces of this stigmatizing perspective everywhere: the assumption that a ‘lack of culture’ or an ‘authoritarian personality’ prevents the ‘other’ Russians from seeing the light. On the latter, Carine Clement has recently taken this idea to task. In particular, she rejects the ‘mythical apoliticism of Russians’ and asks the question – if Russians’ ‘authoritarian’ thinking includes a strong element of critique of the existing social order, then to what degree is it really authoritarian?

Inozemstev’s approach is more interesting. He starts with the notion of popular disenchantment and elite indifference, but then links this to a more general pessimism.  Noting that the ‘new oil’ trope indicates people have awareness of how costly the elites are to them he despairs that ‘the authorities realise quite how broken the Russian population’s willingness to resist really is, from mass protests to even small-scale acts of dissent.’ Does this view make the mistake that only ‘open’ protest is a mark of resistance? Elsewhere Inozemstev actually hints at what is in plain sight: the informal economy as a bulwark against complete penury for many. He notes that even the Russian government openly acknowledges that 38 million people’s work and income is opaque at best to the state. I agree with him that most Russians want to hold down a legitimate employment in the formal economy. However, given such pessimism, even this is increasingly questioned by some of the already most vulnerable. The qualifying period for an old age pension will soon increase from 6 to 15 years, the social rights that accrue to a formally employed person are losing their value due to the erosion of the health system in general.  All in all Inozemstev proposes some incremental reforms that can be characterised as too little too late (tax free allowances on low incomes, assistance schemes like food stamps), which are regressive (increasing VAT) or even defeatist (corruption should be limited to the resource sector). Overall it looks like a kind a pale Fabianism with little scope for taking root.

In his latest piece Inozemstev is closer to some of the points I make in my previous post – detailing what the increasing in indirect taxation will mean to ordinary people – a real rise of around 10% in petrol costs and the real fall in incomes since 2008. Interestingly, given the ongoing ‘rubbish disposal’ protests, he points to the very large increase in household bills for waste disposal. This increase – a doubling has not gone unnoticed by ordinary people and they are up in arms about it – especially in places like the town I study which has been repeatedly the victim of fly-tipping of Moscow rubbish and which recently saw its head of the council’s environmental services jailed for taking bribes to allow such tipping.

Ekaterina Shulman uses the questionable assumptions and methodology of the World Values Survey data to address the topic of ‘turning the screws’ on ordinary people. She first argues that a shift in Russian values from ‘superatomisation’ characteristic of the 1990s to ‘conservative’ is somewhat positive as it facilitates collective action and sociality. A notable effect is the strengthening of weak ties and broadening of the scale of interpersonal trust especially among the young and dynamic. On the other hand, she sees in Russia the continuing legacy of totalitarianism: ‘secular, atomised society’ that produces the lonely distrustful individual with atrophied social skills.  Homo soveticus is very much still with us in her view. Consequently, she greets the shift in public opinion from ‘political security’ to ‘social security’ with some surprise (in reality this aspect of public opinion has always been there).

The beef I have with approaches like these is that the ordinary Russians who daily make decisions about how to live are presented as an undifferentiated mass – suffering from ‘learned helplessness’ (a phrase used by Ekaterina Shulman but also by Carine Clement) or as an unruly source of social unrest – the word ‘revolt’ (bunt) is reserved for them. At worst this ‘by-the-numbers’ approach gives the impression that ‘we’, the addressed middle-class audience of these pundits, should fear the ‘other’ Russia.  Solutions presented ring hollow – they are either a form of gradualism or legalism (vote, even if the field is rigged; use your right to agitate against a bad candidate; if only we just adhered to the Constitution; wait for those nostalgic old people to die). In my final post on this topic, I’ll make use of James Scott’s ideas of infrapolitics to talk more about everyday forms of resistance to the extractive turn.


Why do 66% of Russians regret the collapse of the USSR?

2018-05-11 18.52.56

I was asked today to answer this question by a journalist, so I thought I’d share my responses. Thanks to Jesper Hasseriis Gormsen for asking it. And check out his [Danish language] podcasts on Russia

This is a really tricky question, but what I want to stress is two things – like many other polls, the answer might not be telling us what we think it is. The answer might be to a different buried question in the mind of the answerer. That question (among others) might really be ‘why do so many people live so badly now, when in the USSR they did not (or at least everyone was in the same boat, more or less)?’  Thus eliciting the answer: ‘Yes, I do regret the collapse of the USSR.’

Note (and I guess it needs saying), that this is not my opinion of what the USSR was like (as if there can be a single ‘reality’ of lived experience of an incredibly diverse state that existed for 70 years), just an interpretation that might well be ‘real’ to the person who is asked the question.

The second thing is that poll answers are overly and frustratingly simplistic answers that actually express (or, as I have just said, obscure) very complex feelings and values of the people they are asked of. It is amazing that when I talk to political scientists, they often don’t really believe this in their heart of hearts. Take for instance Brexit or Trump. These ‘answers’ are not merely, or even mainly, about ‘immigration’ or ‘racism’.

Thirdly, the devil is in the detail of the question. It’s well known that survey questions can be phrased and ‘hacked’ to significantly change the result – and pollsters know this (or should do). I don’t think that’s the case here. However, Levada, by using the term ‘collapse’ [raspad] does set out a particular ‘framing’ inadvertently, of the ‘ending’ of the state called the USSR in 1991. One that sets up in the mind of the person answering it, even if they are too young to experience it themselves, the trauma of postcommunist transition. Here we might add – why wouldn’t someone sensitive to the past, or lacking clear ideological support for ‘actually-existing capitalism’ answer: ‘Yes, I do “regret” the passing of the USSR, the state I was born in, or that my suffering parents were born in and worked hard all their lives for.’

Let’s turn the phrasing around. If Levada asked: ‘Do you regret the founding of the Russian Federation in 1991?’ I’m pretty sure the majority would say ‘no’ and so the poll would in a way be reversed.

Here’s the poll in question.

Note the fluctuation since 1999 of around 20 % of the ‘regret’ vote (however, most ‘regrets’ are in a band between 53% and 65% since 2005). (Don’t look at the graph, look at the table). This fluctuation could be to do with people with direct experience of the USSR (positive or negative) dying along with people with no personal experience thinking in more rosy terms about the period – hence a kind of up and down wave effect.  But, you would also expect nostalgia to rise according to periods of crisis. When people feel their lives are not going to plan they might well look back to a ‘simpler’, more ‘stable’ time with nostalgia.  That’s plausible for the figures in 1999, 2000, and 2001 when people took a massive cut in living standards due to the Defolt. However, that is not borne out by the data here when taken in terms of trends over time since then. So perhaps there is not clear answer as to ‘why’ the numbers fluctuate. Here we could have an aside about polling most often telling us ‘nothing’ directly related to the question.

Now to the question of the meaning of nostalgia.

In her wide-ranging book The Future of Nostalgia, the wonderful Svetlana Boym identifies two distinct types of nostalgia: ‘restorative’ nostalgia and ‘reflective’ nostalgia.  Restorative nostalgia, “puts emphasis on nostos (returning home) and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps.”  Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, “dwells in algia(aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance.”

Boym was first and foremost a Russian cultural scientist with a deep commitment to the personal insights lived experience provides for research. We can ‘read through’ her descriptions to suppose that both forms could be operative for nostalgia towards the Soviet Union. And as their psychology origins suggest, nostalgias can be personal quirks, irrationally warm ‘affective’ feelings, passing infatuations, or indeed pathologies bordering on madness. I suggest that all these are operative in different people at different times in the last three decades.

Lastly, we can break down nostalgia into a scale of more ‘rational’ interpretations by people. I rank these not in order of importance, but in terms of macro-to-micro social scale. All, some or one may be simultaneously operative in a person’s mind when they answer the pollster’s phone call – in fact none of them might be operative and the person getting the call might just want to get the pollster off the line!

  1. Nostalgia for Great Power status (empire and the respect for the geopolitical might of the USSR). See Mazur below (and Kustarev) on the ‘myth of achievement’ and the ‘myth of power’.
  2. Political order (totalitarian as a system that ensures a lack of political and civil strife, that obviates the need for the citizen to perform any political roll – relief at this and thankfulness – particularly effective in those that see the 1990s as ‘chaos’). See for example, ‘We grew up in a normal time’ – the title of a chapter in a book by Don Raleigh on Soviet baby boomers.
  3. Social order (“to each according to his needs”) – the Soviet social contract (which Linda Cook shows was failing in large part by the 1980s). Related to this, as in the West, a period of sustained social mobility. See, for example, Liudmila Mazur’s ‘Golden age mythology and the nostalgia of catastrophes in post-Soviet Russia’, although her polling data paints a more complicated picture of the ‘myth of prosperity’.
  4. An emphasis on the sincerity in personal relations, the intensity of personal trust and reciprocity given the ‘heartless system’ of the USSR – note how this is contradictory to point 3, yet perfectly possible to hold this belief at the same time as number 3. People are like that.
  5. Nostalgia for the time of one’s youth (probably universal – hey, I think the early 1980s in the UK were great, but ask a miner or other person from the North that). Nostalgia for personal and more widespread idealism (the BAM-romanticism factor) that accompanied this. See Mazur on the ‘myth of achievement’.
  6. Recognition of Labour(due recognition given to labour as the primary factor of production). Not that I am not saying that work was more ‘dignified’ or better paid than in the West during the Fordist period after WWII. Merely, and this is what most of my research interrogates, many working-class people feel nostalgia for what they perceive as a better time before the present. They highlight particularly, relative lower inequality (everyone was paid badly!), relative degrees of social compensation for labour (the social wage and labour paternalism included subsidised childcare, faster routes to social housing for workers, subsidised food), the team-level autonomy of work given the dysfunctional industrial system – bottle-necks, old equipment, distant management, shortages – all these led to a large degree of control over work, as enterprises looked to individuals and teams to find quick and dirty hacks to solve these otherwise intractable structural problems with the Soviet economy. Another way of looking at this is to say that workers had little or no political or associational power in the USSR, but they did have structural (work-place bargaining, or ‘contingent’ power).

Also operative are the answers that regret ‘loss of homeland’, ‘destruction of kinship and other ties’ – these are offered as options in the more detailed poll question. However, I think my 6 are more heuristically persuasive than the dry promptings of Levada, including the most important one: ‘the destruction of a united economic system’, although my points 2, 3, and 6 could be version of that.

Note that nowhere do I find it persuasive that there is nostalgia for the overly abstract notion of ‘communism’ as a system or the ‘communists’ as a ruling party… I intended to reference this piece on the mythology of the Soviet Past by Kustarev, but didn’t have time in the end. I highly recommend it. Александр Кустарев, Мифология советского прошлого «Неприкосновенный запас» 2013, №3(89)

People as the New Oil. Or, ‘как жить дальше’ in Russia? Part I

Savelii Kramarov - 'I have more than thirty half-litres of vodka left to live on'

Savelii Kramarov in a satirical sketch on the cost of living in 1971. It has become a viral meme in the last year.

Phrases on the variation: ‘people are Russia’s replacement oil’ represent a new extractive and punitive turn in domestic politics, a shift to harvesting economic rents in more intensive ways focused on the daily doings of ordinary Russians. The interpretation goes like this: consistent oil prices over $70 – not seen since 2014 – are needed to maintain Russia’s state budget. After four years of expensive foreign policy adventures and a longer term lack of progress in creating a diversified economy at home, the government has resorted to ‘farming’ the ordinary population in earnest. This is the corollary of the ‘intense struggle access to budget money’ among the elite since 2016 that [paywall] Svetlana Barsukova details. Since most Russians have seen stagnating income levels for the last decade, and witness a noticeable deterioration in state-provision in general (in health and education and importantly the entitlements connected to them – these were the top ‘concerns’ of Russians in 2018), they can’t help but feel acute injustice at the sudden zeal for extracting fines and increasing taxes on unavoidable expenses like transport and utilities, even non-existent land holdings.

While the increase in pension age gets a lot of attention, it is worth mentioning what are more pressing issues, like the price of petrol and the raise in VAT from 18 to 20 percent, and not least inflation on staples, which is likely understated by a factor of three in official statistics. Indirect taxes hit the poorest most, and VAT is levied on utility bills, which already take up around half the income of a person on the ‘minimal income’ ($170) and are now adjusted more frequently for inflation. A second issue is largely untaxed income from self-employment which cuts across classes, from nannies and tutors to taxi drivers and  tradesmen. The government declaring ‘war on the nannies’ was a recent headline. However, most people see these incomes as topping up their meagre primary incomes and interpret the state’s renewed interest in personal taxation as profoundly unjust. Third is the more general ratcheting up of the punitive tax potential of fines on motorists, late payers of utilities, and other minor law breakers. Russian roads are densely covered by enforcement cameras in comparison to most European countries.  Moscow Region alone quadrupled its count in 2018 with 1300 cameras garnering $150m in fines (this is as many active cameras as in the whole of the UK).  400 more are on the way in Moscow in 2019. But the most telling indicator for me was a national park suddenly deciding in 2017 levy a ‘user fee’ of 400 rubles a year from hikers, anglers and even villagers whose abodes happen to lie within the park, the only interest shown in the park by the ministry of natural resources since 1995. It is as if suddenly a player in the ministry decided that previous milking of the parks (through lumber harvesting and guided tours) was now insufficient.

Therefore it is of no surprise to me that a recent Levada poll showed that while Russians’ pessimism is not as bad as it was even as recently as 2013, 46% of Russians cannot plan for even the immediate future. This was published at the same time as another poll that saw presidential ratings fall back to below 2014 levels. Furthermore, the unpopularity of the government and the Prime Minister is as high as it has ever been in the post-2000 world (a record high for the Prime Minister). Perhaps more importantly, for the first time since 2013 more surveyed people respond that the country is ‘moving in the wrong direction’ than the right one (45% versus 42%).


Making impossible ends meet

Bear with me here but it’s really unavoidable that we dig down into the reality of existence for the majority of Russians – poorly paid and already highly taxed before these changes. Indeed, it’s bordering on the irresponsible that the ‘human face’ of working poverty is largely absent from much discussion (which I’ll discuss in the follow-up post). To do this, let’s look at a portrait based on a real research participant I have worked with for the last ten years.

‘Dima’ worked as a loader in a brick factory in his small industrial town for the last ten years, but there his wage was static and never rose above 18,000 rubles a month. His wife works in a food shop part time and takes home 8000 rb. They have a pre-school-age child. The household income was recently therefore less than $400 a month (26,000 rb). Dima thought he’d got lucky, in 2018 he got a job at the Samsung washing machine assembly, on the road between Moscow and Kaluga. This gave him 24,000 rb a month, a 30% pay increase. However, he needed to use a car to commute to work, the costs swallowing a lot of the wage increase. With petrol going up, now he’s earning less than he used to. Before the new tax increases come into effect these were the outgoings of the family: 7000 on utilities, and 15,000 on food, which is skimping on all but the essentials. The family relies on relatives who work a garden plot for fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as jars of preserves in the winter. 5000 a month goes on petrol, just to get to work and back (there are better paid jobs, but they’re further afield). That’s already 27,000 gone, not accounting for clothes, medicine, other motoring costs, or anything for the child. What’s left is 5000 rb – or $75.


When trying to measure relative poverty a robust measure is how much a family spends on food and other essentials. In the bitter current debate on how to quantify poverty, a frequently cited level is an income of least 8 dollars a day to maintain survival, and at least 15 dollars for any kind of dignified existence (especially in a ‘middle’ income country). It’s interesting to note that these two figures map closely the lower and upper range of blue collar wages a man like Dima can expect to earn. These kind of figures are criticised for not taking into account local prices (purchasing power), but as you can see, while wages are very low, living costs are relatively high and even bear comparison with many EU countries.

Just to take the example of the occasional treat of eating fast food, an example that resonates because of the supposed utility of the BigMac Index, for Dima to treat his child to a Happy Meal once a month will cost him more in dollar terms than either the UK or US! Indeed it will cost him 5% of his disposable income for the whole month. [And I can’t resist the personal aside here: my own family of four cooks its own meals and drinks little alcohol. When in Russia we make local-style meals. But our outgoings on food are significantly higher in Russia than in W. Europe]. A more ‘traditional’ measure of one’s finances could be in vodka ‘halflitres’.  Dima can afford 18 bottles of vodka with his 5000 rubles. In the classic routine of Savelii Kramarov from 1971, he complains of only having 30 bottles a month left over after all his expenses! Our real Russia example shows how even with two earners and only one child, no kind of dignified existence is possible. And that is before the significant increases expected in 2019. I often put it like this, Russia is a ‘middle income country without middle-incomes’. And of course Dima is substantially better off than pensioners or the many in much lower-paid work.

In the next post I will try to unpack some of the conclusions observers like Valerii Solovei and Vladislav Inozemtsev draw about what I will call the ‘extractive turn’. Overall they reveal a deep pessimism about alternative futures. Most of all though they continue to view their own countrymen as passive and lacking any agency (beyond a destructive ‘buntovat’ mentality), despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – the massive informal economy that sustains livelihoods and habitability above the bare subsistence level.

On the hegemony of the marketized university and the anglocentric view of knowledge production

Uppsala Lecture Hall

Lecture hall in the illustrious Uppsala Universitetshuset, next to what is thought to be the oldest university building in Scandinavia: the Gustavianum

It’s cold and dark (and that’s just inside the academy). And this post kinda reflects that January feeling of doom.

This piece in Aeon by David Labaree, ‘Gold among the dross’, has much to offer in helping non-insiders understand US academia, and the perverse incentives pertaining to an academic job more generally (that academics are driven less by fear and greed and more by ‘token’ marks of ‘glory’). But it raises more questions than it answers when it comes to comparing the merits of the US (and similar UK) system and other ways of organising universities.

And that’s to ignore what in my view is the untenable, but widespread view, that scholarship is an ‘internal good‘ a lá Alisdair MacIntyre. (An ‘internal good’ is the result of a practice within an ‘institution’ – i.e. where there are understood rules of the game – where that practice is undertaken according to a moral principle of excellence. One pursues excellence for its own sake – hence being ‘internal’ to that practice).

I’ve been thinking about the ‘internal good’ element of certain social practices for a long time, particularly via Russell Keat’s interpretations of MacIntyre’s ideas. In my research, I examined how Russian blue-collar workers engaged in DIY activities in ‘competition’ with each other for ‘sport’. The internal good is ‘expert’ peer recognition of the skill and excellence performed in constructing DIY-decorative-but-useful domestic pieces, such as fish tanks and metal furniture. Crucially, there is no ‘prize’ beyond that recognition, in marked contrast to how an academic career operates. (actually there’s a bit of a wobble here in defining the ‘good’ as it could be seen as both/either the value in the practice itself ‘means’, rather than ‘ends’, or/and the peer recognition in a community of practitioners – Keat does address this problem in his reading of MacIntyre).

Thinking about academic institutions in this way, many, even within universities subscribe to a view of the ‘nobility’ of intellectual work they do in a way that recalls the idea of MacIntyrian practices and goods. Perhaps because I’m not quite smart enough, I’ve always found it very surprising that smart people could think this way. I can’t quite disassociate this belief with other ‘hegemonic’ yet flawed ideas. And not least this is because of the deep and pervasive anti-intellectualism I perceive that underpins so much academic practice (actually that’s the initial bee I had in my bonnet, but will have to wait for another time).

To be fair to Labaree, he argues that academics are motivated more by ‘fame’ than intellectual curiosity or the belief in furthering understanding. What I think he underplays is that the very pursuit of academic prestige is inseparable from other motivation such as vanity, greed, or fear. Possibly all of them at the same time!

His topline argument (in favour of US system) is this: ‘Maybe it’s worth tolerating the gross inefficiency of a university system that is charging off in all directions, with each institution trying to advance itself in competition with the others. The result is a system that is the envy of the world, a world where higher education is normally framed as a pure state function under the direct control of the state education ministry.’

I can’t help but reflect on this in comparison with my own institution in Scandinavia, which more or less is described using Labaree’s phrase: ‘under direct control of the state education ministry’. The author assumes that where there are purer market incentives, like in the US, then entrepreneurial academics lead to the best outcomes (albeit with a lot of waste).

Leaving aside whether this it is really true that market incentives rule, I think it underplays how different (and diverse) non-US contexts are. This in turn illuminates the problem with the piece’s argument: that the ‘market’ is best (of all possible worlds) even if it is wasteful and pernicious in large part. My main problem then with the piece is another kind of hegemonic logic – almost a self-congratulatory social darwinism. A good reposte to this sort of thing was recently published by some Finns who reflected on the experience of publishing with British colleagues. They found their findings were relegated somewhat upon publishing as less relevant. They framed their argument in this way: “Drawing on Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) political theory of discourse, we argue that institutions of academic publishing are constantly reproduced through hegemonic practices that serve to maintain and reinforce core-periphery relations.”

Perhaps the hegemony of the “university-as-market” idea is just one of a number of Anglophone-world assumptions. Another might be that ‘tenure’ in Europe works like in the US and I think inattentive readers of the Aeon piece might also make that assumption (because the piece begins by talking about endowed chairs). A fundamental difference is that ‘tenure’ in the non-US is largely linked to the institution’s, or ministry’s evaluation of the utility of the subject taught (not researched) by the academic in question. Thus in some places even ‘full’ professors can lose their jobs (as they have done even in the UK in less research-active universities).

Overall though, I think the Aeon article (and those who share its sunny perspective, particularly within academia itself) wilfully ignores the hidden ‘network’ of clientalism and patronage. Especially when Labaree resorts to statements like this: ‘As a grad student, you need to write your way to an academic job.’ Hmmm, can we really say that’s true, now or in any period? This is not a market based on merit. This is, like so much of the global moment, about hidden cartels, backhanders and networks of ingratiation (not grace) and favour.


Also, is it really true, as Labaree states based on a previous study, that Liberal Arts (economics) academics only publish 5 peer-reviewed article in their entire careers? (Is this a misrepresentation because they’re more likely to publish books and chapters?) And then there’s this: “lowest end of this top sliver of US universities has faculty who are publishing less than one article every five years. The other 80 per cent are presumably publishing even more rarely than this.” Perhaps I’m only surprised because I know little of the US system.

If that’s the case then what’s interesting is now metric-led requirements have invaded even less research-intensive universities in Europe in comparison to the Liberal Arts system in the US. Or is this just an artefact of the huge number of small LA institutions in the US and the vast majority of state unis in Europe that have to show ‘value for money’ in research? It’s ironic that many of my UK colleagues think that I have fewer research pressures in Denmark than under the REF regime in the UK, and largely that is true. However, if looked at purely through the lens of ‘quantity’, a Danish academic in Humanities or Social Sciences is expected to produce two ‘higher-tier’ outputs a year, which is more than the average a UK academic is likely to produce for consideration in the REF cycle. And this is in an institutional environment where research time (whether as annual number of hours or as a percentage of time) is not officially counted. Food for thought. Or, perhaps I should add the disclaimer: ‘just sayin’’.

(Aside ends)

Okay, let me get back to the essence of my gripe. Articles of this type ignore the broader question of power. In my (humanities/social science restricted, though diverse) experience of academia, the pursuit of power (institutional, financial, situational) motivates many (tenured or middle- to high-ranking academics). I would not put the ‘practice’ of the pursuit of knowledge even in the top three motivations. Autonomy in work, financial security, sure. Name whatever you like as a third.

Of course, personally I am bound to argue that I am ‘not like that’. I.e. driven more by the intellectual ‘practice’ that results in ‘internal goods’ – recognition of a contribution to knowledge, some new, some old, some wrong, some right (after all, only in the long term is it possible to say with any certainty). But it’s not for me to judge myself. What I will say, and what motivated this post, is the long-term observation that one meets few people so lacking in intellectual curiosity as career academics. And this is not just a question of overspecialisation – as is sometimes argued. Many are disturbingly uninformed not only about the world ‘ in general’ and even basic social facts, but also about related disciplines that should have purchase on their thinking. (One colleague often points out that this is generally not so much the case in the former Eastern Bloc where the idea of the rounded intellectual worker remains). And this is despite the language of ‘interdisciplinarity’ gaining ground if not substantive meaningfulness. Then there are the snake-oil scholars, the empty echo equation solvers (where social or humanist knowledge is divorced from the world, is it knowledge?), not to mention the types one finds in all organisations – office-holders.

This brings us back to the ‘institutional design’ of universities. No one should be under the illusion that they actively foster ‘internal goods’ such as the pursuit and peer-recognition of intellectual excellence (MacIntyre scholars here may say I stretch the meaning of internal goods too far, but the point should be clear). These are at best happy coincidences and thanks to the minority – those naïve souls, often never getting tenure or even institutional recognition. While you may say this is too pessimistic I would argue that only by acknowledging this can we start to change it. All the more so because, As Keat observes:

“internal goods, are not only virtue- (or morality-) dependent; they also depend on institutions, and hence on the use of external goods such as money, status and power. [… ] External goods must serve the integrity of practices and their internal goods; internal goods must not be subordinated to external goods, but the latter to the former.”

Of course my criticism of marketised hegemony in the university is nothing new. Keat references Jerome Revetz’s work from the early 1970s. His Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems examined issues of the ‘industrialization’ of science and the need to reinvigorate the idea of ‘critical science’. The risk with increasing specialisation in science is of course the difficulty in detecting in a timely manner various kinds of ‘degeneration’, or shoddy science. We can see this at the root of the mistargeted ‘grievance studies hoax’. (See my brief response to this weasel defence of the bad faith fraud) By all accounts, fake science and flawed science is fundamentally the problem in much heftier disciplines than gender studies and queer theory (where all the fraudsters have uncovered is weak peer review and the failure to call out poor argumentation). As Craig Pirrong points out, the reproducibility crisis in psychological research is acute (50 percent of psychological studies being non-replicable). And most involve relatively simple experiments.

As Revetz might argue, the ‘cleaning up’ and outright falsification of data is partly the result of a relentless focus on entrepreneurial science, “where a scientist becomes more concerned with research grants and power than with the quality of his scientific research”.[2] The wiki for Revetz’s book continues in MacIntyrian fashion: “The need for ‘good morale’, i.e. for an ethos of science upheld by a community of peers is mentioned in relation to the danger that such an ethos may not survive ‘industrialized science’.”

To ground this in reality I offer my example of Russian working-class men making fish tanks. They were pursuing ‘internal goods’ – the recognition of excellence in practice. These practices were wholly divorced from power, money or fame (beyond the institution of the practice – their social circle of confreres). By contrast, the university sees internal goods (the production of knowledge) subordinated to more ‘worldly’ ones. This isn’t any answer to the problem, just a call to think more about how one’s own research (in places as distant as former Soviet factories) can inform an understanding of the institutional world that academics inhabit.

What’s Driving Russia? Fools and Bad Roads?

2017-08-07 18.47.26a

Low-speed prang in the village. Much shouting ensues.

Let’s talk about Russian roads and drivers! No really! Attentive readers may note I wrote about the experience of driving in an earlier post.

That post was related to a chapter in my book about men and cars in Russia and a subsequent article related to it. There was a wonderful tension in some friendships between those that bought ‘bangers’ – oldish Russian Lada cars, and those that took credit out to buy (usually secondhand imports of) German marques, SUVs, etc. Each ‘wore’ their purchase like a badge of honour. For me, car ownership was symbolic of men’s approach to their class positioning and their conscious and unconscious attitude towards the ‘brave new world’ of work. Some were ‘happy’ with the low pay, slower paced, yet dangerous and dirty work in old workshops – firing bricks, making lime, extruding plastic. They ‘nursed’ their old bangers like invalid wives – with affection. Others ‘risked’ the new factories, particularly the higher-paid work in places like Samsung’s monitor assembly. Risky because the work is hard, demeaning, demanding in terms of what academics call ‘biopolitics’ – one has to ‘perform’ being a good worker – turn up neat and visibly sober. Kow-tow to the lower middle-managers. For me this is one meaning of ‘neoliberalism’ in the working-class Russian context (the intrusion of the market into spaces where it was previously absent or moderated by other imperatives). [I know some people object to people bandying around the term ‘neoliberalism’. Case in point. In a recent article, an editor asked me to define what I meant by neoliberalism: for my longer answer, see the footnote on p. 13.]

But talking in general about Russian roads and driving is a really tricky, as indicated by a recent exchange on Twitter. I had mentioned that increasingly punitive traffic laws were designed not to increase safety, but to raise revenue. A point that is often made the world over, not only about Russia. However, as a twitterer pointed out to me, anything that does improve safety has got to be positive, right?

This got me thinking about an ethnographic dilemma that I’ve been trying to solve in a piece I’m writing for publication at the moment. It boils down to this: How, when writing about places that from time immemorial have been presented as somehow backward, lacking ‘culture’, or just plain unpleasant environments, do scholars avoid contributing to those one-sided perspectives?

And this goes for ‘roads’ and ‘road culture’ too. Russians are guilty of this – the famous Gogol aphorism: ‘Fools and Bad Road’. His summary of what was wrong with nineteenth-century Russia is as true today. By any measure, Russia is an outlier in terms of road deaths in highly industrialised countries. 53 deaths per 100,000 vehicles in 2013. Canada is around 9 / 100,000. (The UK is 5, but it too is an outlier – in the other direction).

In the article I’m presently writing, I try (and probably fail) to balance a perspective that says, yes, Russian roads are objectively unsafe (poor design, maintenance, climatic factors), and Russian driving culture is poor because of the way that many drivers did not meaningfully ‘learn’ to drive or ‘pass’ a test. Alcohol use, poor car maintenance and safety are also important. Another truism is the risk-taking culture that is prevalent, especially among men. (I don’t think age is a factor here, some of the craziest are older blokes).

However, these culturally essentialist ‘explanations’ of risk-taking (pofigism), and aversion to rules, are too easy (some would even call them forms of Orientalism). ‘Culture’ is a small part of the problem, in reality. Much more important is a state that does little or nothing to improve safety, and safety culture. Even more significantly, through its daily and longer-term policies, pronouncements and even small actions (like tinkering with the status and rules about what Road Police can do), the state and its representatives show that they values human life so little. Indeed, a great article on this topic (victim blaming) from nearly ten years ago calls this a kind of ‘misdirection’ by an incompetent, uncaring elite.

Such articles, such as this similar one from the Economist, suggest a technocratic/technological fix. As an American journalist put it in 2012: ‘roads reflect a government’s ability to project power and to harness bureaucracy for the common good’. But what if the state has no, or at least a very incoherent conception, of the ‘common good’? Effectively, the common good in Russia is ‘delegated’ to atomised individuals, or only occasionally tolerated NGOs and grassroots organisations. This informal mode of delegated governance is something I’m thinking about a lot at the moment and the ‘incoherent state’ is my working definition of this, but I’d like to improve on it.

However, things do change for the better, and Russia is quite astounding on this account. Responding to delegation (or abdication of the state’s responsibility), driving standards among new drivers are subjectively better now than ten years ago. It’s unclear whether this is partly because of better ‘testing’ while learners. Very rarely in the last decade have I witnessed drink-driving (I did previously see this quite a lot). Similarly, about 6 years ago drivers started spontaneously using a ‘language’ of courtesy – flashing their hazards when you let them overtake you; people do wear seatbelts and use child-seats. I’ve had trouble getting used to cars stopping for me while I’m waiting to cross a pedestrian zebra crossing. Last time I broke down, a motorist stopped to ask whether he could lend a hand. While I don’t enjoy driving on highways in Russia any more than I did twenty years ago, driving culture has certainly improved a lot.

The neoliberal compact and the loss of autonomy for Russia’s middle class.


Milton: “…I used to be over by the window, and I could see the squirrels, and they were married, but then, they switched from the Swingline to the Boston stapler, but I kept my Swingline stapler because it didn’t bind up as much, and I kept the staples for the Swingline stapler and it’s not okay because if they take my stapler then I’ll set the building on fire… “

This is my third and final post about the papers presented as part of a panel on Class formation in Russia at the BASEES Uppsala conference, Regimes and Societies in Conflict: Eastern Europe and Russia since 1956.

The third paper in this troika is by Mikhail Chernysh on ‘The structure of the Russian middle class’. Chernysh begins by examining the Russian government’s development programme “On the concept of the social and economic development 2008-2020” which aims to increase “the intensity of growth of the human capital and the middle class”. The policy paper is useful to get an idea of the government’s way of defining a middle class. These are individuals with incomes over six times the minimum. On this measure the ‘middle’ rises from 30% in 2010 to 52-55% by 2020. Chernysh remarks that it is symptomatic that the self-employed or small and medium entrepreneurs don’t really figure in this equation. The middle class is defined mainly by improved consumption linked to income.

It is striking here how modest this definition is in money terms. If ‘minimum income’ here refers to the МРОТ, then a ‘middle-class’ income equates to around 60,000 Rubles per month or 750 Euros a month. Here’s a discussion of the ‘minimum’: Going back to Markku Kivinen’s paper on linking middle-class to the classical idea of a propertied bourgeoisie, it is interesting that this amount is not enough to build assets over any meaningful period in most circumstances in Russia. People (including dual-income couples with no, or one, child) on this income typically resort to micro and meso short-term loans and mortgages. There are many stories of bad debt, ruined relationships and moonlighting among this segment of the so-called ‘middle-class’. In this income bracket I see people give up or downgrade their automobiles (to Russian or second-hand models bought for cash), whereas in the ‘noughties’ they bought new on credit. Similarly, while people nudging 1000 Euros, or so, could previously holiday now and then in Europe, now they are turning to domestic destinations, or those in the CIS (witness the boom in Armenia/Georgia tourism).

Chernysh then reports on an interesting discourse analysis by E. Balobanova which examines how Russian presidents have used the phrase ‘middle-class’. [E. Balobanova 2011.  Analiz ponyaita “srednii klass” v poslaniakh presidenta Federalnomu sobraniu RF. Political Linguistics. 2(36). For Yeltsin this phrase meant primarily ‘the bureaucracy’, echoing discussion in other papers about the ‘state’-focus of class and caste. Under Putin and Medvedev there was rather inconsistent rhetoric about raising what we might call the neglected technical intelligentsia up to the middle class. It’s interesting that again, entrepreneurs are nowhere in sight and neither are the ‘core’ intelligentsia of teachers and lecturers.


Chernysh then traces the controversial debates in sociology about the middle-class – from being seen as a myth, to the current (politicized?) promotion of Russia-specific ways of counting a middle-class that would produce figures higher than 10% or 20% (see my previous post). Chernysh remarks that this led to the rather unconvincing result of an income of 220 Euros-equivalent allowing entry to the middle class – 44% of the population!

Chernysh then goes on to discuss what he sees as the neoliberal compact in Russian society – particularly with regard to its effect on the state-sector middle class. In return for large increases in salaries, doctors, teachers and others had to sacrifice job security (austerity cut backs) and autonomy (increased monitoring, loss of control over job processes). This strongly parallels my findings among working-class cohorts in the same period. Also important for Chernysh is the actual intensification of work for these groups. The positive part of the deal – increased pay – is at least partly illusory. This is because of intensification but also because much of the pay increase is based on discretionary awards – premiia/nadbavka, etc. This also finds strong echoes in my work with caregivers like teachers and kindergarten employees. They complained after 2009 that they weren’t really better off as so much of their pay was subject to these ‘tricks’ (see p. 62, 64). Chernysh speculates that these factors may influence the current negative evaluation of the government by these groups.

Based on a number of datasets, particularly focusing on responses to questions about what people struggle to afford (durables, more expensive purchases like cars, etc), Chernysh finds that coupled with an occupation approach, the Russian middle-class is less than 20% of the population and more likely less than 15%.

Following Erik Olin Wright’s definition of the middle class as those working in jobs where autonomy is possible, Chernysh analyses autonomy as a variable in a group of respondents with middle class consumption patterns and a university degree.  He finds a significant fall since the 1990s in this category. This is important in the historical context of the necessity, even under totalitarianism, of a ‘moderate level of work autonomy’ in Soviet professions. (I argue, along with the sociologist A. Temnitskii, that this was true of blue-collar workers as well).

Chernysh concludes by drawing parallels with H. Balzer’s Russia’s missing middle class : ‘Middle class consciousness is contradictory, it is not only critical, but also individualistic, showing limited capability of concerted action in defense of group’s rights and class positions. It looks like a revival of historical pattern dating back to the pre-revolutionary times. Balzer’s analysis of the tsarist Russia middle class showed that it was too small and disorganized to effect tangible influence and possibly revert the negative tendencies that weaken existing economic and social institutions’.

Returning to the panel as a whole, the organizer, Jouko Nikula, recently published an interpretive summary based on a broad survey dataset ‘Social Distinctions in Modern Russia’ (SDMR), which some of the papers also made use of.

Nikula points out the ‘decreased opportunities employees have to influence their working pace or work tasks’, particularly among professionals and in the public sector, with a narrowing too of flexibility on working hours. Unemployment has been low despite the two recessions endured by the country – one in 2009, the second in 2014. This because of a persistence of the Soviet practice of labour hoardings and paternalism, at the cost of low wages and furlough, as well as the foregoing of bonuses, which as we discussed earlier, make up an increasing proportion of the real take-home wage.

All in all then, a provocative set of papers from the Uppsala conference. To conclude I would ground them in the reality of my ethnographic fieldwork (albeit partial and unrepresentative). I note the following from my own fieldwork: the least satisfied people from my research were always those that experienced the least autonomy (or a perceptible fall in it over time) – but this was true both of working-class (forklift drivers, packers and sorters in the carplant), and middle-class jobs (teachers and child-psychologists, whose work became increasingly monitored by metric evaluations over the 2010s). Who was most ‘satisfied’? Those with the most or least – well-paid entrepreneurs in high-barrier-to-entry areas like data-gathering and bespoke services, and at the other end, those informal taxi-drivers and grifters who answered to no one and could always ‘withdraw’ to the burrow of the garden plot (at least in the summer) and other strategies of informality.