Monthly Archives: October 2016

Pessimism and punditry

It’s been a long while since I wrote for this blog – partly because I moved institution over the summer at quite short notice. My book also finally came out. I’ve hardly had time to open the hard copy sent to me by the publishers. I’d like to do a lot more micro blog entries about the contents, but for the time being I’ll recap on some of the other stuff I’ve managed to do between moving across the North Sea and adapting my teaching for the rather strict requirements of the Danish Higher Ed system.

One novelty for me over the summer was writing a piece for Current History – a non-academic piece limited to around 8 pages. It won’t be any surprise to other academics to say this was a great opportunity but was also daunting. Here’s the remit:

a piece aimed at general readers that might delve into themes you’ve focused on, such as the informal economy, working-class life in monotowns, and the effect of Western sanctions on Russian workers. Ideally it would also provide a brief sketch of the history of Russian labor relations and particularly the transformations seen since the end of the Soviet Union.

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Uralvagonzavod in ‘tanktown’ – I talk about this in the piece

 

Arrgh – how to give that coherence in what is a short piece in comparison to full-length articles of 20 pages?

The full piece is here [Paywall!!]: http://www.currenthistory.com/Article.php?ID=1347

With the description:

Russia and Eurasia: October 2016

Working-Class Resilience in Russia

Description: “Workers form the exemplary class of economic, social, and psychological ‘losers’ of the postcommunist transition.” Second in a series on labor relations around the world.

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Random pic of dubious relevance

 

As you can see from the mini-abstract – I went with a kind of popular class analysis – working-classes of emblematic of the social and economic costs of postcommunism, but also the loss of status and sense of psychological security that many people felt in the socialist period. This isn’t original – David Kideckel in particular does a really good job of bringing out the ‘losers’ argument in relation to Romanian miners in his work. Of course, on the resilience front there’s been lots written from different angles – from Sarah Ashwin on ‘patience’ and endurance of Russian workers, to this recent Reuters piece.

What was instructive for me in writing this piece based on the material for my book was how to write to a set of subheadings in a short piece. This is something I’ve recently encountered elsewhere – writing for the BBC (for an internal report). Just today, when struggling with a mass of data (28 focus groups), it was actually really helpful to be told by the subeditor: “the subtitle should tell your readers what you want to say!!!” Yes, we academics really are that buried in the detail that we can’t see the wood for the trees.

The Current History piece is split into such subtitles as follows:

[Preamble]: workers don’t look to the state to help them, even though the state has tried to co-opt them politically with things like the All-Russia People’s Front.  Workers have formidable potential structural bargaining power but are relatively poorly organised. The overall institutional wasteland that is the Russian state means that it lacks effective feedback mechanisms to understand how badly Russian workers have fared in the last 7 years.

Slow Bleeding is a 600-word section on the erosion of employment and pay over the last 25 years for blue-collar work. I talk about this a lot in the book. Also I talk about the effect of ruble devaluation on real incomes. People even in Russia don’t believe me when I tell them how much people live on. Sheesh!

Lost Guarantees is a shorter summary of how the loss of social benefits is still really keenly felt.

Monotown islands talks about the geographical isolation of industrial towns in Russia (the metaphor borrowed from Finn Sivert Nielsen). Again, I indicate the potential relevance here for politics as it is easy to ignore these places until the anger boils over, like with Pikalevo in 2011.

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Kindalike an island I suppose

 

Production Cultures talks about how working class identities remain important, and these are local AND classed identities at the same time. What I like about this section is how I contextualise Russian labour migrations in the middle of the twentieth century as a still living part of a late industrial revolution – with identities still important now.

There are a couple of other sections, including on the significance of the informal economy and autonomy in work – two big topics in the book.

I round up with a very pessimistic section on the unlikeness of significant working-class protest in Russia – why? Because of the infinite capacity of Russians – not just workers – to put up with being punished by their state.

Here’s a snippet:

“On the face of it, Putin’s ‘system’ has effectively sidelined any potential militancy by workers. While the mechanisms each taken separately are relatively weak (anti-union laws, political-co-option), they pale into significance in comparison to the one big success and the one big truth of the Russian political-economy. And this relates to the whole population, but is most ‘expressed’ among workers. The ‘success’ is the careful management of the media and the general population’s exposure to news. Add in to the that the age-old accelerant of xenophobia and nationalist fervour. A dollop or two of war helps. All of my working-class informants whole-heartedly support all the current military adventures and shudder with disgust at the ‘fascistic’ machinations of the West and its puppet Ukraine. This type of effective populist distraction takes real effort, but is all the more effective in a state where most people get information from the television alone. Second is the one ‘big truth’ – which has already been presented: the bottomless resilience of particularly working-class Russians. They will take any punishment you care to throw at them, and the Russian elite, unfortunately, cynically, know this.”

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Who got the co-opt job? ‘I think that in this context, you, as someone who has spent your working life in industry and knows how ordinary people live, would be the right person for this job and will be able to defend people’s interests.’ – Putin to the former foreman of the tank factory on appointing him as the Kremlin envoy for Urals.

 

Maybe my conclusion was rather too neat – and this was my major misgiving after writing my first real op-ed piece.

On the other hand, as an exercise in bringing together rather disparate aspects of current research I like it – particularly it forced me to read up more on the political moves to co-opt workers and that fitted nicely with a forthcoming piece my colleague Sarah Hinz of the University of Jena and I have on new workers’ movements and unions in the European Journal of Industrial Relations – will be out in a few months, if not before. Here’s the abstract:

 This article compares industrial relations in production sites in Slovakia and Russia owned by a single transnational automotive firm, Volkswagen. We analyse the empirical data using a working-class power approach. In Slovakia, associational and institutional power is well developed and influenced by the model of German work councils, but structural power is weakly exercised and unions rely on non-conflictual engagement with management. In Russia, structural working-class power remains strong, but the opportunities for transforming this into lasting associational, let alone institutional power, remain limited; thus new unions make use of unconventional methods of protest to promote worker interests.

 

 

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