On the Coalescence of Protest

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I wasn’t going to write any more articles on the material collected as part of my Russian working-class project, but two things happened to change that this spring. First was an invitation by Irina Olimpieva to come to the jubilee conference of the Centre for Independent Social research. The second was the call for papers from the new-ish Journal of Working-Class Studies on ‘Popular Revolt and the Global Working Class‘. Both the Centre and the unrelated US-based journal are causes well worth supporting.

The result was a conference paper given in St Petersburg in May summarising many of the issues in my three papers on new independent trade unions, co-authored with Sarah Hinz in Post-Communist Economies, The European Journal of Industrial Relations, and forthcoming for Berghahn. I also reworked many ideas for a paper for JWCS which I hope will come out soon. In this post I will try to summarise the main points and the ideas that came out of interacting with union activists and scholars at  St Petersburg.

The CfP from the journal asks contributors to evaluate the argument that a global revolt is occurring against establishment systems of governance. Given this is a US-focused journal, I chose to contextualise the Russian working-classes long ‘patience’ in the 1990s, despite disorganised resistance from miners and others against Yeltsin. I used Paul Christensen’s ‘Labor Under Putin’ as an excellent summary to contextualise the difference between Russia and the US over the last 25 years.

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‘It is fair to speak of wholesale deindustrialisation; industrial production is still only 85% of its 1990 level and seven million industrial jobs have been lost (Christensen 2016). This is a 16% fall in the industrial labour force, in contrast to the US, where 4.5 million jobs were lost in the same period – or a 5% fall (ibid). It is often thought that the experience of postcommunist transition meant mass unemployment, but it more resembles the slow loss of industrial lifeblood as enterprises used natural wastage or fired women to reduce headcounts (unemployment reached a high only in 1998 at 14%). The massive destruction in the purchasing power of incomes is much more keenly felt in the living memory of working people.  People cannot forget the real terms reduction of those incomes as they were left unindexed throughout the high-inflation 1990s and early 2000s, and in some insolvent firms workers were affected by long-term wage arrears. This is important in the present, as Russians face a similar downturn in purchasing power of incomes after the sustained oil price fall in 2014 and other factors such as the Ukraine crisis.’

I concluded this section by comparing the ‘end of patience’ in Russia (people ‘endured’ the 1990s, and felt that ‘waiting’ had ended in the early 2000s) to that described in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s work on the US context (2016). The rejection of political-business-as-usual has led to Trump’s victory there, but even in Russia, there are limits to the authoritarian state’s capacity to defuse discontent based on injustice and inequality indefinitely, particularly at a time where these issues can only grow worse and become more visible. Patience may be a working-class virtue, but it is not a renewable resource.

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The second half of the paper asks whether, given the growing labour protests in Russia since the late 2000s (on which Petr Bizyukov presented and has widely written), these sporadic and unorganised disputes can grow into anything more than annoyances for employers and the government to be picked off, one by one. At first I wrote a draft where I pondered on the existence of an ‘event horizon’, beyond which mass protests at falls in living standards might occur (patience is exhausted). (Bizyukov’s previous data on protest to 2015 is below)

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Just like the press in the US and UK, mainstream Russia-watchers largely ignore the ‘pauperisation’ of society, so it’s worth underscoring the kind of poverty many Russians face. I am in debt to a colleague who pointed out some survey data that supports my own ethnographic fieldwork materials: Centre for Economic and Political Reform’s report on living standards in Russia today.  I used this data along with others’ to make the claim that today, because of stoppages due to falling demand, and compounded by currency devaluation, many Russian workers are experiencing the worst reduction in standards of living in living memory. Indeed, they are pushed back into almost third-world levels of subsistence. Strzelecki (2017: 10) notes that ‘the number of individuals who declare that they have too little money to buy enough food and those who cannot afford to buy clothes […] amounted to around 40% of the population’. The low paid workers in some regions are now spending up to 80% of their pay on basic food staples (TsEPR 2016: 5).

In the final draft of the paper, however, I deleted the references to ‘event horizons’ as pompous and difficult to justify. Instead I focused on the likelihood of a ‘coalescence’ of labour, political and social protest leading to regime transformation. This was based on what I heard from union activists and others in St Petersburg, but what does coalescence mean?

From the roundtable: ‘Is successful labour protest possible in today’s Russia?

The participants noted the maturing of the union movement, where people expect more from employers and employers are correspondingly more responsive to the needs and demands of workers – where there are active unions, of course.  Viacheslav Zhuiko stressed the division in workplaces now between those who are experiencing wage arrears and the rest underlining that where unions are present, employers now have to listen to demands. Karine Clément stressed that today we observe a sharper articulation of the distinction between the haves and have-nots in society. Petr Bizyukov highlighted the way labour protests today in Russia are always rooted in the ‘right to dialogue’ of workers.

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In her writing Clément notes that many ordinary people who participate in local and less ‘organised’ protests ‘have no previous activist experience, and may even have held negative attitudes towards activism and collective action before becoming involved’ (Clément 2015: 212). The same is true of labour protests such as the long distance truckers’ dispute in 2015 and its ’round two’ this year. This is one meaning of convergence-as-coalescence – the growing politicisation of protest that becomes a virtuous circle as people’s confidence in their right to a dignified life grows as does their realisation that economic and social problems have political roots. Petr Bizyukov illustrated this really well in his talk that touched on the Truckers’ protests, which started out as ‘patriotic’ and avoided blaming Putin, but which rapidly lost its political naiveté.

Another key participant of the conference, Aleksandr Bibkov highlights the common themes of protest in Russia as attempts to activate ‘dignity’ and a sense of ‘collective autonomy’. This also gives cause to think that convergence and coalescence between disparate groups – say political protesters of the Navalnyi ilk, and, say, people protesting the  destruction of Soviet-era housing in Moscow (motivated by corruption and private profit), could make common cause.

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After I had written the second draft, the UK elections gave me further cause to ponder the appropriateness of the term ‘coalescence’. David Timoney scathingly notes that the UK press were unable to ‘locate Labour voters’ until late in the day. It’s obvious why – there is now a startling disconnect between even the erstwhile centre-left press – represented by The Guardian – and the reality of Britain. It’s very telling that this newspaper spent most of the last two years supporting the line that a moderate leftist set of policies were impossible to sell to the electorate. In the end it seems clear that voters from all over the UK came back to Labour at least partly because of the effects of the Conservative government’s austerity policies on healthcare, education, and other public services.  Timoney notes that the ‘meta-story across the country is the return of substantive social and economic policy to the heart of political debate’. Can we see this as a coalescence of the concerns of different generations, classes, even? I would hope the answer is yes. Like in Russia, there is a limit to the degree to which people are willing to see their living standards eroded and essential public services gutted. At the heart of this, I would argue, lie the values of ‘dignity’. When politics assumes that the arrogance and callousness needs no window dressing, sooner or later we get the ‘coalescence’ of affronted dignity that transcends people’s ordinary political prejudices. Perhaps the same is possible in Russia. Without meaningful political party vehicles, activating, channelling and enacting Bibkov’s ‘collective autonomy’ is the hard part.

 

Petr Bizyukov had another interesting comment to make: in answering a question about revolutionary activity arising from Labour protest, the former tool maker and long-time researcher of labour disputes, said ‘be careful what you wish for. I’ve seen these guys up close and they don’t take any prisoners [referring to the Donbas coal miners’ underground strikes in the 1990s]. As a coda, I strongly recommend Petr’s recent work. He’s written on the increasing rate of ‘impatient’ and spontaneous labour protest, that bear witness to people’s despair.  He’s also written comprehensively here about precaritisation through informalisation of employment here.

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3 thoughts on “On the Coalescence of Protest

  1. Lyttenburgh

    Quote:

    “In her writing Clément notes that many ordinary people who participate in local and less ‘organised’ protests ‘have no previous activist experience, and may even have held negative attitudes towards activism and collective action before becoming involved’ (Clément 2015: 212). The same is true of labour protests such as the long distance truckers’ dispute in 2015 and its ’round two’ this year.”

    Sigh. The author – a well known person to us by this time – seems to be still ignorant at what constitutes the “working class”. Lumping together protests of the truckers (who work for themselves) and factory workers (who work for the factory owners) into one artificial category (“labour protest”) could only a person of the “white collar” background, for whom all “blue collars” are the same.

    Articles like that serve nothing but to satisfy the American desire of the “Crussionality”, especially now, when there is a wide held urge both among the chattering masses and the Western elite they serve, to “punish” Russia.

    The idea that a coalition of UralVagonZavod workers, Dagestani truck drivers and two-capitol’s hipsteriat gonna unite and topple “the Regime” is, surely, a tempting one for the anti-Russian Westerners and, thus, propagated more and more. E.g.:

    “This also gives cause to think that convergence and coalescence between disparate groups – say political protesters of the Navalnyi ilk, and, say, people protesting the destruction of Soviet-era housing in Moscow (motivated by corruption and private profit), could make common cause.”

    The rally against demolition of khruschevki gather 2-3 times more people than Navalny’s “anti-corruption” illegal rallies this year. The organizers of anti-demolition protests went to great pains to avoid being associated with liberastia. If you are betting on them – you are betting on a wrong horse, especially given the fact that the legislation about the demolition is already signed into the law.

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  2. Jeremy Morris Post author

    Why is ‘anti-Russian’ to desire an end to the current government in Moscow? And to substantively respond. I use the word coalescence precisely because I am sceptical (but hopeful) about the realistic prospects for linking up protests, as you rightly point out, between ‘white’ and ‘blue’ collar people (to use an inevitably simplistic shorthand). Regarding lumping different categories of work together as ‘working-class’ is a more valid critique. However, I do see similarities between the social and economic positioning of truckers and other workers. A lot of the time the trucker is not even the owner of his ‘asset’ (CHePe), either working for the ‘Dydya’ or having a loan on the truck – in either case a precarious positioning.

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    1. Lyttenburgh

      “Why is ‘anti-Russian’ to desire an end to the current government in Moscow?”

      For several reasons. First of all, “to desire an end to the current government in Moscow” (why is it important that this government is in Moscow, btw – what, should it be in St. Pete that’d better?) means to go against the wishes of the vast majority of the citizens of Russia, who benefit from said government’s doing its job. Aka – you are calling for the topplement of the legitimate government. Second – do you have a plan who should replace this “current government”? What are their political programs? These people who would replaced aforementioned “Moscow’s government” – how much support do they have among the Russians?

      Finally – it’s well know what categories of the people “desire” most of all “an end to the current government in Moscow” ™. Quite a large number of them are not even Russian citizens, or the one’s who have very tenuous relations with Russia in the first place being, you know, citizens of several other countries as well. And then there are, of course, so-called Russian so-called liberals, who don’t even hide their Russophobia. These people are most loud in their desire to topple the “Regime”.

      I’ve seen plenty of Russians who were both patriotic and supported the current government. I haven’t seen anyone who was both patriotic and against the current government.

      “And to substantively respond. I use the word coalescence precisely because I am sceptical (but hopeful) about the realistic prospects for linking up protests”

      Then how does your “analysis” is different from some shamanistic ritual from the Far North, when you pray and invoke spirits, “hoping” that your ritualistic actions will effect some supernatural effect?

      Look, I’ve seen it all. The “prophecies” about the “imminent collapse of the Regime” ™ were in vogues since at least 2001. Just last year, a lot of ink and kilobytes worth of words had been spent by the Western punditocracy all across the political specter from Finland to USA “predicting” that “Russian 2016 elections might very well result in violence and deligitimization of Putin’s regime” (c). Why? Their best explanation was “because Russia is such a country, where you can’t be sure in anything”.

      The same thing happens when anything happens in Russia. When the students and protesters are teargassed in France, Britain, Germany or the good ol’ US of A, when they protests for month and there are legit clashes between them and police – that’s not a reason for journos and “think-tankers” to worry. When a bunch of idiots (and only an idiot would ever trust crook and thief Navalny) turn up in lover thousands to “protest” in Moscow – that’s yet another case to celebrate (be “hopeful”) for Russia’s typical enemies and those, who serve them with their intellectual pursuits. Hypocrisy is lost to them, naturally.

      That’s what you do. You give your consumers what they desire – “5 minutes of Russia-hate” – and conveniently cover your ἀφεδρών in the (quite probable) case when your “prediction” and “analysis” would be proven wrong. But this begs a question – who are you, Mr. Morris? Are you scientist, propagandist or shaman?

      “However, I do see similarities between the social and economic positioning of truckers and other workers.”

      That’s not the first time we having this conversation about your misunderstanding of the classes, Mr. Morris. Apparently, it’s no use for me to even attempt you change your methodology – you will keep doing that in the future, perhaps, because such dumbing down is what your audience can stomach.

      “A lot of the time the trucker is not even the owner of his ‘asset’ (CHePe), either working for the ‘Dydya’ or having a loan on the truck – in either case a precarious positioning.”

      “A lot” is not a number. Do you have poof and hard data? Besides, resorting to the “they have a loan, ergo proletariat” is a slippery slope and false equivalence when you are talking about what truly constitutes a working class and what constitutes petite bourgeoisie. If I to believe you, someone who takes a loan and then opening up an enterprise, is, somehow, “not owning it”. Since when even small business owners (and dal’noboishiki are the ones) became the same as proletariat? It’s their problem that they took the loan. It’s their problem that in order to cover debts they, quite often, resort to violation of the existing legislation and traffic code. Their problems are inherently petite bourgeois.

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