From authoritarian neoliberalism via the control society to surveillance capitalism? (Part V in a series)

taped off play area in Moscow in spring 2020

This is the penultimate in a series of posts on ‘everyday’ political economy. The long read is now published here.

I ended the last post by talking about a long-term and ongoing phenomenon – the way SEZ’s offer a devils bargain to Russians and how they burn through labour. Another finding from my work that is as true today as 10 years ago is that many workers who ‘fail’ in the SEZs, more often end up in the ranks of lumpen, surplus populations undertaking everyday ‘microproletarian economies’ (Gago 2017:19). In this sense, the most marginal part of the Russian population takes on the task of maintaining the dynamism of what Verónica Gago has called  ‘neoliberalism from below’. There may be a space within this dynamic to resist exploitation and dispossession but this itself becomes a ‘foundation for an intensification of that exploitation and dispossession’ (Gago 2017: 11).

Ovsyannikova (2016) criticizes Matveev for using the term neoliberalism to Russia in part because she believes the social state trumps any deregulatory momentum. She cites labour protections and (from the perspective of 2016) lack of pension reform as examples. However, empirical evidence shows that employment protection in Russia is ‘poorly observed’ (Gimpelson et al. 2010) to put it mildly. Pension reform did go head, despite enormous opposition and prior commitments to indexation were diluted to the point that in the future it is likely the universal element will be replaced by means-testing. Ovsyannikova argues that ‘monetisation of welfare benefits’ was overdue because of underfunding and piecemeal in execution.  However she ignores how monetisation closely matches patterns of welfare residualization elsewhere which are key to the austerity politics of the World Bank and other international institutions (see Wengle and Rasell 2008: 749).[1] Monetisation also contains within itself the key logic of ‘choosing’ deserving groups and making them ‘responsible’ citizens (Kourachanis 2020).

As Simon Shields (2019: 657) notes in the Polish case, family-focussed welfare reform can act as a form of ‘neoliberal social innovation’ by appropriating the micro-scale of social reproduction as a further space of responsibilization (of benefits linked to parenthood, upbringing, domestic work) and privatization (of former entitlements such as pre-school childcare). In addition, the diffusion through welfare states of conditionality is a key plank in neoliberal reform because it realises a critique of social rights on both a discursive and structural level (Pieterse 2003, in Bindman 2017). Eleanor Bindman also reminds us of the genealogy of responsibilization in social policy stretching back to Soviet ideas around welfare provision.[2] Julie Hemment (2009) points out that in the Russian case rhetorical concessions to a social state are not matched by policy – if anything, they serve as a cover for accelerating change. Even a generous interpretation of the remnants of the social state reveals extreme conditionality, narrow and patchy coverage, and tokenistic, piecemeal provision in cases of extreme social distress.[3]

The retreat of the social state is nothing new and not peculiar to post-socialist states. However, as the thesis of authoritarian neoliberalism proposes, during periods of crisis contingent necessity results in incoherence or heterogeneity of the state bureaucratic function. This merely underlines its punitive or delegative relations to the individual. The state’s response to Covid-19 in Russia and its similarities and differences to core states are instructive. First, a knee-jerk authoritarian lock-down followed by a hurry to delegate responsibility back to the individual and downplay both the social costs and state responsibility. Russia, like other neoliberal developed economies, offered very limited income support for livelihoods, especially among the self-employed and poor. This affected not only lumpenized informal workers like taxi-drivers and construction workers, but also the burgeoning ‘freelancer’-precariat white-collar workers – an important category in Russia, as elsewhere where there is high ‘human capital’[4] but structural barriers to SMEs beyond micro-entrepreneurialism. As Andrey Shevchuk (2020) points out – labour processes that are negotiated via digital platforms in the ‘gig’ economy emphasise tight algorithmic control and a loss of autonomy because the platforms actually disguise incorporation of workers into ‘shadow’ corporations. This also divides up labour into small parcels which has a wider influence via spillover into other domains of work. For the purposes of our argument, work for ‘shadow corporations’ intensifies both punitive monitoring and self-exploitation at the point of production.

Covid-19 only accelerates this aspect of neoliberal authoritarianism; digital transformation enables a ‘control society’, long predicted by Gilles Deleuze (1990). Alone among European nations, in early 2020, Moscow’s government pioneered a technological system of surveillance quarantine (Orlova and Morris 2021) [pdf in Russian. I will blog this Russian article later].  While ultimately unsuccessful, and quickly giving way to broader (neoliberal) pressures to re-open the economy regardless of public health risks, the Moscow experiment illustrated the tendency of control to shift from a focus on the disciplined, directly observed body, to a new order of domination. Personal data processing as a semi-autonomous system entails both the deactivation of agency and its reactivation through incorporation of the person in their own data flows (where choices about what images we view online and what products we buy are then fed back to us to reinforce existing behaviour).

Of course digital governance apriori assumes a set of political values to be ‘inputted’ into any algorithm which can then make judgements of value as to the conduct and movement of real individuals, just as the data attached to persons themselves can become another ‘fictitious commodity’ to further marketize social domains that previously resisted incorporation (Haggart 2018). The term ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff 2015) is often focussed on individual privacy rights, and monopoly capitalism in general, rather than the implications of data commodification for individual behaviours observable via the everyday political economy, hence my preference for the broader term authoritarian neoliberalism.

The nascent Russian control society (which will possibly develop along the lines of the Chinese ‘social credit’ system) illustrates the potential further reinforcement of self-monitoring and inscription in one’s micro-social actions of neoliberal logics. Moscow serves as a suitable test bed for the further expansion of such technologically integrated systems of governmentality in the ‘democratic’ countries – for example Face Pay is being enthusiastically rolled out in the metro. Micropayment systems via phone are almost more obligatory among the immigrant and marginal populations than among the Moscow middle-class. I could entertain with a long anecdote of how a few days ago I tried in vain to pay in cash for a 3-hour taxi ride (five thousand rubles, or around £50). The Kyrgyz driver really didn’t want the cash because it was so much easier to facilitate remittances and ‘store’ of value electronically for him within his ethnic community… in the end I had to give the cash to an aquaintance who then transferred money to my Rakhimon. But, let’s end it there for now.

Next week I will post the conclusion to this series.

[1] It should be acknowledged that there is more diversity in the World Bank’s thinking nowadays.

[2] See also Bockman and Eyal 2002 for a discussion of East Europe as its own ‘author’ of neoliberal policies.

[3] For example, the one-time payments for families in 2020 and 2021 during the Covid pandemic, and the varying levels of prenatal payments have not addressed Russians’ unwillingness to plug the demographic gap – itself a symptom of precarization. An example of the perniciousness of the logic of means-testing is the evidence that a third of Russians do not know they are entitled to benefit payments of some kind.

[4] Noting that the very concept is an elision of ‘labour processes’ and relations in service to neoliberal ideology (Mirowski 2019: 14). Freelancers as a proportion of working-age population in Russia is high by European standards at 14% compared to 4% in the UK.

1 thought on “From authoritarian neoliberalism via the control society to surveillance capitalism? (Part V in a series)

  1. Pingback: Russia as vanguard: authoritarian governance in symbiosis with rent-seeking (final part VI in the series) | Postsocialism

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