Post-socialist working-classes as subalterns?

The relevance of ‘post-colonialism’ to post-socialist contexts just keeps cropping up in the most diverse of places (Snochowska-Gonzalez’s recent piece, and my colleague Kevork Oskanian’s work), so while it’s not the main focus of any of my work at the moment, it’s definitely worth making some space to think aloud.

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A book I’d like to have written! – another thing that prompted me to write this post was rediscovering an essay I wrote in 1997 about the Zapatistas and Franz Fanon.

What initially kicked off my interest in the applicability of the term ‘subaltern’ was its use by David Kideckel in his 2002 article: ‘The Unmaking of an East-Central European Working Class’ in Postsocialism. London: Routledge, pp.114-132. In the undergraduate class I teach on anthropological approaches to post-socialism, I ask students to read that article alongside this one: Stenning (2005) ‘Where is the Post-socialist Working Class? Working-Class Lives in the Spaces of (Post-)Socialism’, Sociology, 39(5), 983-999. Then I ask them the question: What do you understand by Kideckel’s use of the word ‘subalternity’? Compare it to Stenning’s discussion of passivity?

Most of them feel that Kideckel is justified in using it. But, this is probably not really a fair question, as most of the students haven’t yet been exposed to much in the way of literature on post-colonialism.  Because of that, I usually give them a crib sheet like this:

In postcolonialism, subaltern is the social group who are socially, politically, and geographically outside of the power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland.  The term subaltern derived from Gramsci’s work on cultural hegemony, which identified the social groups who are excluded from a society’s established structures for political representation. It is a matter of debate whether he meant to use the word in place of ‘proletariat’.  “Subaltern is not just a classy word for ‘oppressed’, for [the] Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie. . . . In post-colonial terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern—a space of difference. Now, who would say that’s just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern. . . . Many people want to claim subalternity.” (Spivak, in de Kock, 1992).

spivak-y-u-no-think-subaltern-can-speak

But how does Kideckel use the word? It really is fundamental to his argument that post-socialism sees the imposition of a form of neocapitalism. For him, transition theory underestimates the pace of change in the 1990s and after. Neocapitalism is a ‘social system that reworks basic capitalist principles in new, even more inegalitarian ways than the Western model from which it derives (2002: 115). He then gives a strong hint that he sees this as related to the argument that transition can be compared to neo-feudalism – which is confusing given that feudalism and capitalism are normally seen as distinct stages of accumulation. Actually he relates the present predicament of his Romanian workers to that of peasants in Braudel’s ‘long sixteenth century’ and neo-serfdom – whereby peasants were nominally free, but landless, and still tied to a wage-paying landowner (see Makkai 1975). In this sense, Kideckel aligns his position to that of World-systems theory (Wallerstein and Eric Wolf) and the latter’s call for giving voice to the ‘people without history’, but who are always present and part of processes of globalization.  Accordingly, Romania is caught in a system of dispossession sees a Western ‘prototype’ reworked to establish a dependent semi-periphery in CEE.

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[By the way, Michael Hudson’s blog has a nice take on how neoserfdom as a term can be accommodated into the neoliberal ‘compact’. http://michael-hudson.com/2014/01/n-is-for-neo-serfdom-o-is-for-offshore-banking/ ]

So what about the subaltern? Kideckel continues his analysis by using words like ‘durable inequality’, and ‘degraded supplicants’ to describe workers. The mines close and workers, already towards the bottom of a knowledge-based division of labour under socialism, are structurally relegated again. Kideckel notes that Rudolf Bahro (1977) used the term sub-alternity to describes workers under socialism. Bahro, who also coined the term ‘actually existing socialism’, argued that workers were cut off from involvement in the ‘plan’ and forced to do the psychologically and intellectually deadening work of routine production (Gabbert 1983). Subalternity is therefore the ‘condition of psychological and intellectual narrowness experienced by those whose work provides no opportunity for aesthetic and mental growth’ (ibid). This sounds a bit woolly to me. Kideckel is much more robust – in fact he provides an eight-point definition of subalternity under post-socialism which boils down to lack of information, knowledge, representation, class solidarity, symbolic capital, and the dissolution of social networks of support.  This sounds a lot like the more recent concept of precarity to me.  The 2008 Kideckel book doesn’t have an index entry on subaltern, but does have a chapter talking about the othering process of workers.

The reason I ask students to compare Kideckel to Stenning is because of her use of the term ‘passivity’ and her concern with the need to foreground a ‘middle-position’ of agency between passivity and organised industrial action. That brings us nicely to Robert Brenner’s critique of the world-systems theory that Kideckel implicitly draws on, which he argues neglects local class structures and class struggles: ‘They fail to take into account either the way in which these class structures themselves emerge as the outcome of class struggles whose results are incomprehensible in terms merely of market forces.’ (Brenner 1982). Criticisms of Bahro revolve around the rise of worker self-organisation in Poland in the early 1980s as a refutation of his position. And all this relates to a potential criticism of the subaltern label as effectively denying any sense of agency. It is a long time since I read much on colonialism, but the term ‘subaltern’ brings associations of utter powerlessness to mind. In my book, I talk a bit about Bhabha’s work and make use of bell hook’s famous quote on the dangers of academics thinking they can ‘talk about you better than you can speak about yourself’ – the dangers of academic interpretation on behalf of the subaltern redoubling that positioning. However, I don’t want to rehearse those arguments here. The main point is that Stenning is right – there has to be a balance between inflexible structurated and naïve ‘resistance’ positionings of the post-socialist working-class.

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As so often in such circumstances, I look for help in Burawoy’s work on Hungary and Simon Clarke’s still under-rated work on Russia.  Burawoy famously noted that workers developed a ‘negative’ class consciousness – they held communist governments responsible for not fulfilling their promises of worker’s ‘inheriting the earth’ (1992: 114). Clarke makes a very good job of explaining how the potential structural power of workers was (and remains) high, yet they remain atomized politically. He goes to great lengths to criticise the argument that the soviet system was a form of state capitalism. Instead he proposes it as a form like feudalism (What about the workers? 1992: 26). Here were are back again at a term that links to a kind of subaltern positioning, and the present.

Just like in Burawoy’s context of late socialist Hungary, we now also have social and economic conditions not keeping pace with workers’ expectations, and a new urban middle-class growing and claiming ‘too much’ of the economic resources. Clarke says that in the late Soviet context workers were subordinated in a sense that was comparable to capitalist alienation. For Clarke, class struggle could not develop as it was displaced into factional struggles in the other structures of power. Kideckel (2002, 2008) stresses the ‘unmaking’ of a working class in Romania; the pace of ‘neocapitalist’ forces there leads to extreme declines in workers’ fortunes. By contrast, Stenning and Adrian Smith emphasise the domestication of neoliberalism by ordinary people – effectively their uneasy accommodation with it – using the informal economy and survival tactics taught by socialism to get by. Repoliticisation is not offered as an option – except perhaps recently by Don Kalb. But the ‘political’ response can take many forms, as any history of colonialism shows. If we accept two conceptions of subaltern – Spivak (silenced), and Gramsci (denied political representation) and then add Clarke’s ‘subordination’, as well as a good dose of alienation and the continuation of atomization, then surely subaltern works as well as any other term.

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The centre of Kaluga in 2009 – one of my informants took me to this spot to illustrate a point about ‘powerlessness’ in Putin’s Russia.

But what about Burawoy’s ‘negative class consciousness’? – it implies, after all a political articulation of the worker’s objection to his or her positioning. Maybe ideas like ‘proletarian refusal’ are ways of linking the post-socialist workers’ tactics with those of the traditional subaltern of colonialism. Indian swadeshi stressed self-sufficiency and the ‘refusal’ of the colonisers’ goods and economic settlement (Manchester cloth). Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire use the term ‘proletarian refusal’ in name-checking Kelley’s black working-class history of the US. There are plenty of points of intersection between the tactics by the subjects of my research and Hardt/Negri’s ‘nomadism’, ‘refusal’ and ‘vogelfrei’ metaphors. (The latter – ‘free yet rightless’, derives from Marx’s own kind of Bhabha-esque interstitial conception of workers between feudalism and capital – seemingly used by Hardt/Negri as a metaphor more positive – making a virtue of precarious positioning). The tactics used by people in my research in relation to what they perceive as a ‘bad’ formal jobs include actual ‘refusal’ of formal work, engagement with informal or subsistence economies and work, self-provisioning, and other ‘tactics’. I suppose one of the real tests of the term subaltern, is the ability of groups of the dispossessed to turn tactics (boycotts of British cloth or sugar) into viable long-term strategies. A strategy, in turn means they are no longer ‘subaltern’.

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A ‘tactic’ of the powerless? graffito demanding ‘equality’ in central Kaluga, 2009.

Keywords: subaltern, post-colonialism, Kideckel, working-class,

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