Monthly Archives: November 2015

The ‘lumpen’ and postsocialist academe’s class blindness

This post is a bit at cross-purposes – I’m writing about class from so many angles now.

First we have the old ‘lumpenisation‘ of the masses argument as a convenient peg on which to hang explanations of Putin’s popularity and the so-called passivity of Russians. Here’s our scapegoat:

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Testament to the unorginality of the argument today is that the comparison is implicitly made to Bulgakov’s objection to the Russian Revolution.

Then we have the issue of academe’s built-in middle-class perspective in any society – it reproduces bourgeois conceptions of politics, even as it makes a pretense to being ‘critical’.

But in Russia and elsewhere in the East it is worse, as any study of working-classes is like academic kryptonite – associated with the ideological straitjacket of the socialist era when all academic work had to pay lip service to a painting-by-the-numbers Marxism-Leninism.

A year ago I was asked to write a ‘review’ piece justifying the need for a new working-class studies in former communist societies. I agreed enthusiastically, but because of my book project I put the idea aside until a few weeks ago. I am not going to give details of the journal yet, as the piece should be out for blind peer review.

Anyway, I finally got back into it but immediately there was a problem – how to summarise in 4000 words the rich patina or work going on not only in social sciences – particularly ethnographically, but in labour history and elsewhere? In the end I’m not really happy with the result which is bitty, and still rather disorganised. I still like the first bit though, where I argue that in Russia in particular, normative assumptions about class are everywhere, even as ‘working-classes’ are made invisible or rendered passive ‘bydlo’ (yes Latynina, I’m looking at you!), prey to populism and the latest ‘ura-patriotism’ of Putin’s state machine.

Two recent publications really stick out as confronting this issue and I’d like to engage more with them: First is Don Kalb‘s edited book Headlines of Nation, Subtexts of Class. (I need to write a review of this soon!)

Second is this really nifty piece on Slovakia by Brian Fabo that arguably renders my own efforts rather superfluous: Rediscovering Inequality and Class Analysis in Post-1989 Slovakia.

The original impetus for my piece, however, was reading Natalia Zubarevich’s ‘Four Russias‘ pieces and discussing them with my Political Economist colleague, the wonderful Richard Connolly. I then came across Anatoly Karlin‘s well-reasoned objections to Zubarevich’s position. While I don’t share his pro-Putin agenda, the highlighting of the elitism and barely disguised contempt of ordinary Russians by the intellectual opposition is spot on (more in the comments than the actual blog).

Anyway, here’s the first bit of my piece – sans the references, maybe I should tone down the sarcasm…

Class is everywhere you look in the post-socialist world. The media are awash with stories about aspirational yet ‘normal’ ‘European’ lifestyles and the desirability of gated communities. There is the endless discussion of ‘communist-era’ mentalities and outmoded concepts such as social justice and cohesion.  Popular culture is rife with trashy stereotypes of ‘low-lifes’ and track-suit-clad petty criminals that serve as thinly veiled fantasies about the dangerous lumpenization of the post-socialist working classes. Given the persistence of semi-authoritarian governments in the former Soviet Union and resurgent populist politics in Eastern Europe, social protests are analysed for what they reveal about the growth of the middle class. In scholarship too there is selective attention and selective invisibility.

In Russia, one of the least democratic and largest of the post-socialist states, the liberal English-speaking intellectual elites bemoan what they see as the political compliance of ‘ordinary people’ to the government’s revanchist, chauvinistic and authoritarian agenda. Pensioners, rural dwellers, but even more so the blue-collar workers of the industrial ‘hinterlands’ are seen as a dangerous class of political conservatives, or worse, in Central East Europe they are seen as easy prey to populist neo-nationalist movements (Kalb 2011: 7).

Easily written off in this way, the road to modernization and democratization is reserved for the ‘creative class’, a construction that belies the continuing widespread reality of low-tech manufacturing and resource extraction which underpins many of the regions’ economies. Indeed, many of these states have become sought-after sites of manufacturing because of the new consumer markets they offer to transnational corporations. It is strange that we write off the study of workers at the very moment they may serve as a revealing crunch point at the meeting of unbridled neoliberal capital and disembedded labour between global north and south.

Just as once the working-class were the ‘vanguard’ of revolution and progress, now the ‘creative class’ are a talismanic ‘locomotive of modernisation’ and social transformation of these countries into ‘normal’ polities. ‘Middle class’ comes to stand for class studies more generally, but with little or no acknowledgment that in CEE this group still remains a ‘spirit seeking a social body.’  Similarly, when it comes to work and organizations, scholarship often focuses on the genuine success of the creative and new media industries, while the bread and butter of the socialist era – blue-collar work or the factory, is rarely the object of research, except as a form of ‘ruin-gazing’ (High 2013), or as part of the study of urban renewal and deindustrialization.

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