Russia as vanguard: authoritarian governance in symbiosis with rent-seeking (final part VI in the series)

A lonesome food courier in demand during Moscow’s autumn 2021 lockdown

In the previous post I started to discuss the Russian experience of Covid and how it shows authoritarian governance as contributing to the accelerating implementation of surveillance practices.

What we often miss in this equation is a mutual benefit for states and corporations, including state-owned enterprises .  Using the control society, further pressures are brought to conform or internalize behaviours, practices and mindsets that entrench neoliberal thinking and allow the biopolitical to undermine any alternative ‘mechanisms of accounting’ (Hardt and Negri 2004: 148). Local researchers like David Hurma are right at the heart of Russian research that opens up this contradiction – we are supposed to internalize discipline, but this goes hand in hand with increased surveillance of work processes. This conjunction of state and capital power can be observed everywhere, but I want to end with two further brief examples of Russia as ‘vanguard’.

Russia offers a good example of the broad and deep roll-out of the surveillance state due to its particularly fruitful experience since the 2000s of aligned state and capital interests in extracting economic rents from populations. In just the most obvious example, the peppering of public (and increasingly private) highways with revenue-generating traffic enforcement cameras should be seen for what it is: an authoritarian technical solution to overcome limits on rent-seeking elsewhere. The plethora of these cameras puts every other developed country’s efforts to shame.[1] Truly, in linking the control society to rent-seeking it is as pure a public-private partnership you can wish for. A part of the proceeds goes to regional budgets, but the ‘take’ from private companies supporting the cameras’ operation is 15-times greater than their real cost.[2]

And of course, in case there’s any doubt, petty corruption by police does not end because of the camerification of roads, it just metastatizes into preying on goods vehicles and taxi-drivers instead of ‘ordinary’ motorists who are caught by the cameras alone (like me – I pay around 3-4 fines a year for road infractions that are almost impossible to avoid). I personally saw three bribes extorted from such drivers in just a dozen trips last month.

To move to a different scale – that of the individual, a similar process can be observed in the microproletarianization of workers such as food couriers and taxi-drivers. They, as elsewhere, are subject to algorithmic control for maximum extraction of surplus value within shadow corporations – see Andrey Shevchuk’s work on this concept [opens as pdf]. This happens of their own ‘volition’, via internalization of the demands of maximal self-exploitation and the delegation of all externalities to the individual and wider society (health costs, accidents, insurance, pollution) by the platforms themselves. However, here again we observe the imbrication of state (which owns bonds in such companies, allows them to operate as quasi-monopolies, and sustains anti-labour legal environments) and financial and political elites who own such companies. The scaling effect of microproletarianization of swathes of economic activity in Russia via concentration of market share is unprecedented outside of China.[3]

“I use Face Pay. Travel became more convenient and simpler”

In conclusion, we should view Russia as just another ’‘normal’ country, just not in the optimistic sense Daniel Treisman and Andrei Shleifer (2005) predicted: a middle-income country facing typical developmental challenges. Instead, I would contend that Russia is ‘normal’ in a ways that reflect its peripheral-as-vanguard authoritarian neoliberalism. Its characteristics are the dominant politics of “austerity” (the phobia of fiscal expansion, a continuously residualizing social state) accompanied by the other disciplining factor of real incomes falling over protracted time periods;  limited social mobility and the privatizing of educational opportunity leading to a small plutocratic class or caste; the expansion of indebtedness and precarity in the population; social reproduction as largely responsibilized and privatized; the expansion of the horizons of the rentier alliance between state and capital interests and a modest cementing of multinational corporations’ clout and the intensification of their role in the economy (a process actually accelerated by sanctions; see Gurkov and Saidov 2017). All watched over by the nascent digital control society.

Doug Rogers in his book The Depths of Oil (2016) cautions against ‘uniting things under the theoretical sign of the “neoliberal”’, but at the same time agrees with the need for a more serious ethnographic examination of how flexible labour regimes, SOEs and the neo-authoritarian state are linked. As I argue here these linkages intensify the politics of resignation on the part of ordinary people, at the same time as they are further incorporated into neoliberal (self)governmentality. The only limits on incorporation are certain incoherences of the state-capital accommodation-assemblage. As Rogers (2016) noted in his study of the oil and gas industry in the Urals, capitalist ‘incorporation’ via privatisation after communism does not necessarily mean coherence or coordination in governance and corporate identity. In addition, the term ‘incoherence’ is distinct from ‘hybrid assemblages’ (Ong 2006) or ‘parasitical co-presences’ (Peck 2004). ‘Deregulatory’ governance (in the sense that it lacks finality or fixity) inevitably and often unintentionally opens up holes in the fabric of economic and social relations.

Emergent practices both reinforce but also undermine economistic and bureaucratic rationality (Molyarenko 2016, Morris 2019) in what Ananya Roy (2009: 80) calls ‘law as social process’. Conjuncturally, Russia is notable for the continuing expansion of the informal economy in tension with state and capital surveillance – even though, as I have argued before, informality entails in part internalisation of neoliberal governmentality (Morris 2019). As a space for autonomism, non-market orientated exchange and labour its potential is limited. Nonetheless for imagining non-capitalist alternatives, its sheer size means informality is important. Informality in Russia should be seen as offering similar counter-hegemonic potential as that of models that derive from ‘deregulated’ and informal systems from below in other global contexts – such as horizontalism (Sitrin 2012), baroque economics (Gago 2017), and ‘insurgent’ citizenship practices. These are beyond the scope of my essay, but deserve equal attention in any approach that proposes an everyday political economy with a view to uncovering space for the emergence of ‘commons’ beyond state and market (Caffentzis and Federici 2014, Fournier 2013).

[1] The world speed camera database records 15,000 control devices in Russia – likely an undercount – the GIBDD counts nearly 19,000 devices in 2020. This is 9000 more than the next highest European state and four times the number in the USA and 20 times the number in Canada.

[2] See  also

The road tax system known as Platon has some similar characteristics

[3] For example, the most popular search engine in Russia also owns the main social network, the most popular email service, and controls both the main ride-hailing app and an increasing share of the food courier business.

5 thoughts on “Russia as vanguard: authoritarian governance in symbiosis with rent-seeking (final part VI in the series)

  1. Sergey Steblev

    Jeremy, thank you for this post! The most intriguing part was in the end, yet it was also the less clear one. Namely, I was wondering why do you write about the informal economy that “As a space for autonomism, non-market orientated exchange and labour its potential is limited. ”

    and at the same time:

    “…for imagining non-capitalist alternatives, its sheer size means informality is important. Informality in Russia should be seen as offering similar counter-hegemonic potential as that of models that derive from ‘deregulated’ and informal systems from below in other global contexts…”

    while, after that, going as far as relating the informal economy to commons as in Caffentzis, Federici and the like.

    It appears that “baroque economics” might be a good comparison. But why comparison with the commons of the “Midnight Notes Collective”? And why the comparison with Sitrin’s work, which was again so much about self-management etc? For me, the key distinction here would be between those strategies that rely on a “social muscle”, on associative power, and those that rely on more individualized survival and escape.

    Can you elaborate on this? Or maybe it would be a good topic for a future post?


    1. Jeremy Morris Post author

      I can’t remember whether the informal economy part is more developed in the journal article version. I expect it’s similarly brief. Autonomism is notoriously problematic a term, I agree. I’m sympathetic to Gago’s Baroque economics to a point, although I find her work frustratingly over-theoreticized and under-empiricized. To be honest, these were just a selection of diverse approaches to the ‘commons’. I think you rightly uncover a weakness in applying these approaches to the postsocialist context, but we have to start from somewhere. Certainly something I want to think about more deeply is what we really mean by autonomism and whether or it can develop a social muscle beyond the very limited ‘metaoccupational communities’ it is presently limited to. Very good food for thought about some of the weaker parts of my arguments. Thanks a lot, Sergey.



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