Author Archives: Jeremy Morris

About Jeremy Morris

I write about Russia, work and class as an academic. But don't let that put you off.

Patriotism and nationalism among ordinary Russians today

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I am giving a paper at Malmo University for the second RUCARR conference and this is a great excuse to revisit a topic I wrote about some time ago – Russian everyday nationalism and patriotism since the Ukraine conflict. So this blog post is in lieu of a paper for the conference – I hope I finish it in time!

In my article on ‘everyday diplomacy’ in the Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, I was encouraged by Diana Ibanez Tiraldo to write about my experience of how geopolitical ‘events’ impacted my fieldwork relationships in Russia when I returned there in 2014.

In that article I talk about my sense of myself as unwilling representative of my origin country during fieldwork, and how, despite the unrelenting media campaign in Russia, most of my encounters that involved political talk were characterised by ‘civility’ and ‘silence’, or the agency of ordinary people in negotiating their way between the strident tones of state propaganda on the one side, and their genuine feelings of patriotism on the other. So the article is something of a contribution to what has been called ‘everyday geopolitics’ or popular geopolitics, but specifically thinking in terms of subjectivities. Therefore I make some use of the term ‘intimacy-geopolitics’, that comes from geographers Pain and Staeheli 2014. Consequently, I think about how ethnographers resemble or don’t resemble diplomats, or are inevitably hailed as representatives of their origin countries’ international policies. The article ends, not by focusing on how media propaganda around the Ukraine conflict activates nationalism in everyday contexts, but on the contrary – TV and internet endless, in-your-face, over-the-top rehearsal of tropes like ‘Kiev’s fascist junta’ and ‘crucified Russophone children’ seems to traumatise my Russian informants. The Russian state does such a ‘good’ job of speaking to the most unpleasant nationalistic perspectives that most people are left mute, bereft of any position of their own. As a consequence, if anything, nationalist discourse is externalised from the subjectivities of my informants – the state performs it for them, thereby replacing them as nationalist subjects.

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However, one thing I really wanted to return to was an issue touched on only tangentially in the article – the distinction between patriotism and nationalism and the ‘classed’ nature of discourses around nationalism. Orwell’s 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism was an important reference point here. Orwell sees nationalism as a ‘moral’ failing in modern societies and as present in all individuals. At the same time he makes the case for a kind of positive identity politics of place that does not require an ‘other’ to justify and sustain itself. For him this is patriotism. What starts out looking like a leftist apology for patriotism actually comes closer to a sense of unstructured, yet embedded communitas. I am particularly influenced by Stephen Lutman’s article on Orwell and Patriotism, published in the Journal of Contemporary History in 1967. Not only Lutman has highlighted how Orwell describes patriotism as defensive, originating in a communitarian political posture where one’s origin culture is cherished, but not to the detriment of others. Lutman traces how Orwell’s essay is the culmination of a long process of his thinking about the left’s need to acknowledge the power of patriotism and thus begin to consider how to utilise it in the cause of social change (in 1945 when the essay was written, much of Orwell’s earlier optimism on this count had dissipated – by this point patriotism has been reduced to at best a kind of defence against totalitarianism).

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Orwell contrasts patriotism to nationalism, which is often an ideological commitment that is intellectualised, yet not standing up to rational analysis – it is always negative because it is founded upon a commitment to competitive prestige. The most famous quote of the essay, actually relating to a leftist illusion runs as follows: ‘One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. ’  Orwell’s vision of patriotism can be compared to the idea of cultural intimacy proposed by Michael Herzfeld.  And this may provide us with a way of thinking through Russian nationalism and patriotism today. That both the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ aspects of group loyalty can be simultaneously present and ‘performed’ by people. This resonates with many of my encounters with my Russian research participants, both before and after the Ukraine conflict, and before and after the Russian state-controlled media ratcheted up nationalist rhetoric against the perceived enemies in the West. Ukraine and Ukrainians as an ‘object’ of xenophobia and chauvinism, mainly (although not exclusively) take on a minor aspect of the ‘everyday discourse’ of nationalism, despite the media propaganda’s attempts to the contrary.

I offer three examples (all of which are included in the article) of thinking about nationalism-patriotism in a more nuanced way. Firstly, a long-term low level badgering by a few (the minority) of working-class research participants which I term ‘political testing’. This include provocative statements about Russia’s ‘victimhood’ status in recent history: from accusations about Western delays in opening the second front in WWII, allegations of separate negotiations for peace with the Nazis, to more recent events like the bombing of Belgrade in 1999.

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What did I really think about these things? I was prodded repeatedly, although usually in a relatively good-natured way. In the article I mainly focussed on this political talk, not as expressing nationalist views, but as a kind of invitation for acknowledging the traumatic Russian past, the often double-standards of the West in more recent history, and even, ethnographically speaking, asking me to acknowledge a kind of privileged positionality (I talk more about this in the article). Certainly, it does not relate to the now widely discussed ‘whataboutery’ of Russian discourse when presented with criticism (although I encounter a lot of that from some Russians). I’ve largely given up trying to engage with whataboutery – there’s a revealing anecdote about that in the article regarding Obama, Libya and Ukraine.

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The second example is related – a kind of generalised resentment about the ‘post-communist compact’ in Russia that has mutated into what certainly looks like negative nationalism as Orwell’s terms it (anxiety about the loss of Russian/Soviet prestige). One informant – Sasha, a factory worker – in particular is frequently fervent in his ‘bury the west’ rhetoric and likes to fantasise about cutting off Russia’s gas supply to the whole of Europe (‘to see how you like it, when you’re begging us for a crust of bread’). Certainly, this fits a  classic frame of analysis about nationalism as a response to decline. However, this is the same informant who despises the Russian government and insists on muting the television when any representative, including the president appears – ‘they don’t care about people like us’.

I call this response the ‘national patriot’ reaction to events. But how deeply does it go? One thing I’m interested in is how quickly a lot of analysis of current events seems to readily fall back into an adoption of a kind of uncritical acceptance of the old hypodermic needle effect of nationalistic rhetoric from the media. Sasha wasn’t particularly nationalistic before, so he seems to fit that model. However, he is the tiny minority. Overall, I’d say he, like many of my informants, is a patriot more than he is a nationalist (we’ll come back to Orwell in a moment). His problematic positioning does illustrate Paul Goode’s contention that every patriotism and nationalism are not easily distinguished and that one may easily transform into the other.

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Third and final ethnographic example. This is a recent acquaintance and not really an informant. A Professor of Physics from Moscow with whom I had a number of arguments in the summer of 2014. His basic position was that Ukrainians were inferior to Russians and that Ukraine historically had never been a coherent nation, and was in the present undeserving of statehood. This intellectualising, (flawed and false) rationalising of national superiority and inferiority is at the heart of Orwell’s argument.  My example nicely illustrates also how class difference may play a role; for Orwell, patriotism is largely unconscious, operating at the level of affect, whereas nationalism is a rationalising force – making it all the more dangerous and unpleasant.

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Two further reflections are in order. The first is on the the role of the state as an agent in forming public opinion. The second is on the artefact of polling data. While naturally sceptical of the very concept of public opinion, we can note one thing – states can be effective in amplifying sentiments, but the roots of those sentiments may be diverse – resentment at decline, loss of prestige geopolitically, are perhaps the least problematic ‘nationalist’ levers brought to bear here. However, I’d like to pause for a moment to consider whether it’s really the case that Russians, even after all these amplifying and mobilising efforts, are more ‘nationalist-minded’ than other Europeans, or even Americans. Here I follow the lead taken by Edwin Bacon in his latest book ‘Inside Russian Politics’. There he points to how survey polling reveals very little difference in xenophobic sentiment between different countries. In fact his headline finding is that Russians are far more optimistic about the chances to avoid conflict than those in the West. On the topic of patriotism he also notes that polling reveals people in the US and UK as more strongly patriotic than Russians.

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‘There must be a border!’ Danish People’s Party

A further look at some recent polling is even more revealing: Levada finds that in 2017 attitudes towards ‘foreigners living in Russia’ are the most positive since polling on this topic began (albeit only 13 years ago). As a proxy for ‘xenophobia’ this doesn’t sit well with a view on a sustained upsurge in nationalism. 54% think there should be limits on foreigners’ rights to live in Russia (in 2013 it was 81%). In the UK and US these figures are significantly higher. In my own country of residence, Denmark, the second biggest political party believes in a kind of immutable ethnic purity for the Danes, and around 50% of people don’t believe immigrants should enjoy equal rights. Back to Russia, but this time on ‘external enemies’. If in 2014 84% thought Russia had external enemies, now that figure is falling somewhat (in 2016 it was 68%). More encouragingly, 30% of respondents think that ‘talk of enemies is pursued by the authorities in order to frighten people’.

I hesitate to say that polling really tells us much about actually-existing, let alone ‘everyday’ nationalism. Certainly the amplifying effect can be measured, as I’ve said earlier. But what exactly is being amplified? Here I would return, tentatively to the idea that it is as much about a generalised resentment, disillusionment about the whole processes of social and political change in the last three decades in Russia, as it is about nationalism. Yes, some of this can be redirected towards external enemies, and yes, a lot of this resentment can be easily amplified thanks to the real hypocrisy of the ‘West’ in matters geopolitical.

Another way of saying this is to think of ‘nationalism’ as a ‘social fact’ in the same way Durkheim examined suicide. But Durkheim was wrong. His social fact of suicide turned out to be an artefact of different ways of recording deaths, rather than the ‘real’ meaning and causes of suicide itself. It is the same with nationalism – we should be careful of not mistaking state-discourses for ‘everyday’ nationalism and patriotism, which may turn out to be something quite different.  (Of course banal nationalism is another story, but something I’ve written about elsewhere).

What I’m not trying to do here is downplay the significance of the increase in nationalist propaganda at all levels propagated by the Russian state – from schools, to television, to the highest level of government itself. Indeed it was that elite-directed signalling that prompted my interest. What I hope to draw attention to is how it is problematic to impute a clear transmission belt effect to so-called ‘ordinary’ Russians, who are usually more than sophisticated enough to see they are being hailed in a particular way. Again, Paul Goode’s focus-group and interview research on this topic back that up. Secondly, I draw attention to a fact that I’m sure my political science colleagues wish to stress themselves – that this is a clearly conscious elite strategy of chauvinism and xenophobia.

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Surkov in suitable company

Indeed, there appears to be evidence that a lot of the Ukraine ‘adventure’ and its attendant rhetoric is associated with a particular individual – Vladislav Surkov. A better example of the arrogant intellectual one would struggle to find in Russia today. Recall the Orwellian reference point again: ‘one would have to be an intellectual to believe that…’. Surkov also strikes me as being a good example of the salience of the other point I wish to make – patriotism versus nationalism. Surkov wears his sophistication, dare I say it given the associations of the word, ‘cosmopolitanism’ as a badge of honour. Now, as the chief ‘theatre-maker’ of Russian politics, it’s not difficult to imagine that while having a vivid understanding of the meaning and potential for nationalist rhetoric, he would struggle to understand everyday Russian patriotism, as expressed by the kind of people in my research, and as distinct from nationalism. I can’t help but imagine he would react cynically to my position here. Any maybe that would just prove my point.

 

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Cheesed off, but not because of sanctions. Immiseration, elite disconnect and neoliberal convergence.

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‘Get this straight, it isn’t even a question of whether you give the cheese up or not…’ (contemporary Russian version of Aesop’s fable 124)

With the constant, confusing and often misinformed media noise around Russia, you would be forgiven for believing a number of unhelpfully distorting half-truths:

That Russia has been a pariah state for a while (connected to sanctions after the occupation of Crimea and intervention in East Ukraine). That Russia is on a kind of lock-down with no outlet for protests and careful management of dissent by the state, or that Putin is so popular that protests are pointless or restricted to a small educated minority.

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‘tyrant-fellating’ gun for hire with former employer

Lastly, you might get the impression that oil money continues to keep the Russians reasonably quiescent – after all, the government spent heavily on social programmes before and after the initial shocks associated with the global financial crisis.

The aim of this piece is not to go into the all too frequent errors, overestimations of Russian efforts ‘against’ the West, the misunderstandings that conflate domestic-orientated actions with those directed outward. Overall, the obsession with a kind of ‘Cold War 2.0’ makes debate all about ‘us’ in the West and obscures or impedes analysis of the increasing similarity of social, economic and political crises in states like Russia and the ‘West’. In this blog post I will present a kind of thought experiment about what could be called provocatively ‘neoliberal globalizing convergence’ by focussing on the forms of elite enrichment and detachment from ordinary people; the impoverishment and precarisation of the majority of citizens; and thirdly, ‘cheese’ (specifically the lack of access to affordable cheese). This is one anthropologically meaningful symbol of the failure of governance for ‘the people’ – the latter a category important in Russians’ understanding of the social state (“why doesn’t the state do more to look after ‘the people’?”).

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An innocent-looking piece of Russian cheese

Elite enrichment is perhaps the one area where the Trump-Russia scandals may actually help us shed light rather than generate heat. As I write, it is emerging that Paul Manafort – who worked as Trump’s campaign advisor and who previously served Ukraine’s deposed president Yanukovych, is alleged to have laundered $75m dollars to avoid US taxes through a Cyprus bank tied to Russia.  The opposition blogger Alexei Navalnyi has long made Russian corruption through offshoring and laundering a mainstay of his political campaigns against the Russian elite. Now today in the US we have a kind of mirror image – albeit in miniscule form – tens of millions is chicken feed compared to the billions alleged to have been offshored by the Russian elite. What’s more, these are the proceeds of crooked state-budget tenders, and the ill-gotten proceeds of privatised, and then asset-stripped, Russian companies – a process stretching back to the 1990s, not the ‘legitimate’ earnings of a ‘tyrant-fellating’ lobbyist like Manafort. The point is, the Manafort revelations are just the latest, and most direct, US-Russia linked examples of elites operating to extract and then protect (otherwise taxable, or ill-gotten) wealth beyond nation-state jurisdictions.

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‘Pre-approval’ presumably refers to how rich you are

More importantly, inter-elite relations between the US and Russia aside, we should be more concerned with the plain fact that despite all the individually targeted sanctions by the US and EU against Russia, the ‘West’ is still the banker for the Russian elite. It is alleged that even the top level Russian political figures supposedly banned from the EU frequently travel to holiday residences incognito, perhaps even via those ‘non-governing nations’ – i.e. British and US sponsored tax havens, such as Gibraltar, or Russian favourites like Cyprus, where their wealth is stored alongside that of the West’s elite. If the global financialization-capitalist moment means anything, it is that public political punishment (sanctions), or national, or even international legal jurisprudence shouldn’t really affect the private flows of expropriated wealth from poorer countries to richer ones.

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As a formerly highly industrialised country that had the neutron-bomb treatment of ‘economic shock therapy’ as Russia did in the 1990s, the re-current ‘capital flight’ which  supports liquidity and financial speculation elsewhere especially after the financial crisis 2008-, has uncanny echoes of that earlier transition period from Communism.  As the global capital accumulation cycle entered a slowing phase, the opening up of the vast resource extraction economy that was the USSR acted as a kind of stimulus to Western economies, flooding the market with cheap industrial commodities while enriching a small group of Communist-party-connected elites. Analyses such as these serve as grist to the conspiracy theory mill within Russia, by presenting these processes as planned by the West, rather than the result of capital in search of assets suddenly arriving in a new market. Opportunism is domestically presented as a foreign directed criminal conspiracy to pauperise Russia.  Certainly, the wholesale asset stripping and under-the-radar export of resources formed the basis of economic and political power for the Russian elite and shifted abruptly a low inequality society to one of the most unequal in the world.  It’s easy to understand the attraction of conspiracies when proponent cite the well-researched work recently done by Thomas Piketty’s team. In reviewing the present position, they baldly state: “there is as much financial wealth held by rich Russians abroad—in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Cyprus, and similar offshore centers—than held by the entire Russian population in Russia itself.” (Novokmet, Piketty, Zucman 2017: 5). In this latest stage of offshoring, the main motor is not privatisation (now around 70% of GDP is produced by state-owned enterprises) or resource sale, but siphoning off state tenders and procurement ‘padding’ to the value of $17bn a year – or twice the state education budget for a country of 144 million people.

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I just love the irony of this British tax-authorities’ poster.

The important thing is that despite lip service paid to the effect of sanctions on Russia and the punishment of reducing Russian access to international money markets, so-called ‘round tripping of capital’ from emerging economies to offshore financial centres (OFCs) and back as foreign direct investment (FDI) remains par for the course in Russia. A parallel process, described by the Guardian’s Luke Harding, protects the incomes and lifestyles of elite individuals named in sanctions. Any celebration of news of the delayed extension of US sanctions applied to military exporters in Russia misses the point. Weapons exporters can get Russian state loans and don’t export rifles or planes to the US. We must leave ‘sanctions busting’ aside as a minor issue, however interesting we find the relabelling of EU and Norway-caught fish to come from Belarus, or the diverting of Scandinavian produce via the Faroe Islands.

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The well-known salmon fisheries located offshore from the Belarus fjords.

While ‘round-tripping’ FDI is not the same thing as ‘real’ FDI (Ledyaeva et al. 2015) which comes from transnational companies continuing investments in plant, production and personnel in the Russian Federation – Volkswagen cars being the example that features in my own research, in reality that ‘real’ FDI is also little effected by sanctions, except for an initial wobble in 2014-15. The ‘sanctions’ regime distracts from the ongoing and more fundamental incorporation of Russian economy and employment into the global capital systems – albeit with Russia forced into adopting a model of the low-cost manufacturing and relatively low-added value production activities – ice cream from Unilever, consumer automobiles from Hyundai, building insulation from Danish Rockwool. Gurkov and Saidov (2017) note two other more important points here – the MNCs produce in Russia for the domestic market, but now also for export, and increasingly move towards localisation of production – meaning that various parts of the supply chain – milk for ice cream, for example – are sourced from Russian suppliers.

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‘Gold Standard’ ice-creams. A Russian brand belonging to Unilever. Advertised as the ‘tasty pride of Russia’.

The point is not that sanctions should be targeting the jobs and livelihoods of ordinary Russians. That would be even worse than the status quo, which gives a veneer of political punishment, but leaves the game the same. The point is that the incorporation of Russia into the global economy has actually intensified under sanctions – not to the benefit of ordinary people, who increasingly face the same progressive deterioration in their living standards as elsewhere. If anything it is the ‘sameness’ of social suffering in comparison to other states that we should be more attentive to when studying Russia – rather than the obvious differences (such as political regime and ‘human rights’).

So it is here I want to move on to the second and more ethnographically informed part of this post: A parallel process to the preservation of capital for the elite in Russia is the progressive immiseration of ordinary Russians. Initially the general disruption in Russian-West trade due to the Russian embargo on EU produce led to many food staples becoming much more expensive and of dubious providence (including cheese). In addition, the difficulty in planning any investment in such a political environment led to increases in unemployment, indebtedness, wage arrears and underemployment among Russians. Finally, the continuing economic crisis was an easy excuse for the Russian government to further restrict welfare provision and other social budget items while ratcheting up the xenophobic rhetoric – ‘your pension isn’t inflation indexed, the rouble has crashed, but Crimea is ours, and look at Gayropa!’.

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A parody election poster referring to Medvedev’s comments to Crimean pensioners

The realities of everyday insecurity, impoverishment and long-term woe for many Russians pre- and post-date the sanctions regime, as Novokmet’s and Piketty’s research neatly summarises.  In this section I to focus on the 2009-present moment. Why 2009? Because it was that year that marked the end of a decade of real improvements in all Russians’ living standards. It was also the year I started doing my research on the Russian working poor in small industrial communities. There was one consumer staple that for me came to symbolise ongoing ‘everyday precarity’ of Russians’ lives: dairy products – or rather their recategorisation from affordable staple to out-of-reach luxury. Why focus on dairy? Elsewhere I’ve written about the symbolic significance of meat, beer, and other foods for Russians (Morris 2014). But milk and in particular, cheese, cuts to the core of Russians sense of the present as ‘not normal’, and in turn to unwelcome realisations about elite cynicism and disdain for ordinary people, or ‘cattle’ as some Moscow intellectuals like to call them.

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The common or garden Russian pensioner. Laser-focus on price tags

In the late Soviet period, cheese had become a familiar food staple – ‘Russian (rossiiskii) cheese’ was an affordable, if bland, standard dairy product. Despite the hyperinflation, destruction of savings, devaluations and other dislocations affecting Russians in the 1990s, ‘Russian cheese’ did not disappear from the shelves or diets of the urban consumers.   When I started ethnographic work in 2009, for most of my research participants, cheese, along with red meat had been consigned to the ‘occasional luxury’ category of their mental shopping lists. Indeed, I recall being quite annoyed that milk, cheese and salami were never bought at all by my first host family, until I was able to better appreciate the fact that despite having two salaries coming in from the public sector, they lived significantly below the poverty line (even giving up their domestic telephone). Our staples were macaroni and tinned fish, with chicken also a ‘luxury’. I recall well the disgust of my host when I bought some fruit juice – ‘what a waste of money – for chemical water and flavouring!’

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Cheese for me, but not for thee.

My experience is borne out by fine-grained survey research in Russia. Combining numerous data sources and taking a national overview, 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 [pdf link!](TsEPR: 2016, 5).

If poor Russian had long given up on being able to live a ‘normal’ consumer existence, with cheese and salami excluded from their diet, the sanctions regime suddenly gave the ‘middle class’ a taste of this experience. Because so many products, from dairy to fruit and vegetables, were imported, even the better off urban Russians in office jobs were suddenly faced with much higher prices as the Russian economy shrank by 5% percent in just half a year in 2015 and the rouble crashed. At the same time the state set about publicly destroying (bulldozing and then burning) tonnes of confiscated cheese and apple imports, refusing even to redistribute them to the needy. The shortages in imported staples coincided with the shrinking of the economy which meant that many ’better off’ Russians’ incomes were affected for the first time since the late 1990s. Only a small fraction of the metropolitan (Moscow and St Petersburg) middle-class have incomes ’indexed’ to Euros.

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If we bury this now, in a hundred years we will have a beautiful Parmesan orchard

Four years after the beginning of the sanctions, cheeses are back on the shelves, but the market now even more clearly reflects the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, with many more now in the ‘have-nots’ pile. In supermarkets forlorn packets of unbranded ‘Russian cheese’ sweat in cling-film alongside neatly packaged ‘President’ Brie (domestically produced by French subsidiaries – to avoid counter-sanctions).  A relatively protected group like Moscow pensioners (with numerous social benefits and a higher, inflation-indexed pension) would struggle to buy either product. Even a ‘lucky’ pensioner might live on only 250 Euros a month – from which they will have to pay for utilities, as well as food. The suspicious-looking and almost tasteless ‘Russian cheese’ now costs six Euros a kilo, the ‘branded’ President, over 12 Euros. Why ‘suspicious’? Because stories real and imagined abound of how cheese has becomes a ‘dark story’ of Russian autarky after sanctions, with all kinds of fly-by-night producers rushing to fill the gap with ‘surrogate’ products containing palm oil, or in some cases bulkers not fit for human consumption. By some measures up to 25% of cheese is not what it seems, by others, up to 80% of cheese is counterfeit. You might not have considered this before but cheese is a ‘secondary’ product of milk production, and requires over 15 litres of milk per kilo of cheese. Milk producers’ costs have doubled since 2012. It’s telling that milk production and consumption today in Russia is still 40% below the late Soviet-period figures; a lot of milk production is small-scale and doesn’t enter commercial distribution networks. Long distances preclude distribution, production is inefficient and imports play a significant role in the market.

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‘Something approximating cheese’

Of course there are other measures of the continuing downward spiral of Russians’ economic well-being – the 20-fold increase in consumer credit at punitive rates, the resultant delinquent loans and epidemic of aggressive debt collecting being one. But as an everyday ‘simple’ pleasure of the table, cheese can perhaps more starkly show how badly ordinary Russians live, how little an obscenely wealthy elite cares about them, and how large and increasing is the gap between them. More than that it shows how Russia is dominated by both very visible real disparities as well as the open secret of the counterfeit.  Adulteration substitutes for the real; and the longed-for ‘normal’ remains out of reach (what could be more a sign of normality than a bland holed triangular chunk of cheese). There are many parallels in the counterfeit political sphere of course – not least its rubber consistency and lack of aroma.

However, in a different sense, Russia is just a ‘normal’ country, just not in the mildly optimistic sense the political scientists 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 different way: the dominant politics of ‘austerity’ (I prefer the concept of a continuously residualizing social state); real income falls over protracted time periods; the end of upwards social mobility and the privatising of educational opportunity; the expansion of indebtedness and precarity ever more widely in the population; the strengthening of multinational corporations’ clout and the intensification of their role in the economy (a process actually accelerated by sanctions – see Gurkov et al. 2017). All these represent Russia as converging with the ‘West’, regardless of the media focus on authoritarianism and the ‘new cold war’.

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‘Time to fend off the debt collectors again’

[This post was written for the Focaal blog, associated with Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology http://journals.berghahnbooks.com/focaal/. A slightly different version was published there 16 November 2017: http://www.focaalblog.com/. Thanks to Don Kalb and others at Berghahn Press]

 

References
Igor Gurkov & Zokirzhon Saidov (2017) Current Strategic Actions of Russian Manufacturing Subsidiaries of Western Multinational Corporations, Journal of East-West Business, 23:2, 171-193.
Igor Gurkov, Alexandra Kokorina, Zokirzhon Saidov. (2017) The cul-de-sac of foreign industrial investments to RussiaPost-Communist Economies 29:4, pages 538-548.
Ledyaeva, S., Karhunen, P., Kosonen, R. and Whalley, J. (2015), Offshore Foreign Direct Investment, Capital Round-Tripping, and Corruption: Empirical Analysis of Russian Regions. Econ. Geog., 91: 305–341. doi:10.1111/ecge.12093
Morris, J. 2014. The Warm Home of Cacti and other Soviet Memories: Russian Workers on the Socialist Period.’ Central Europe 12(1): 16-31.
Novokmet, F, T. Piketty, G. Zucman. 2017. From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016. Working Paper 23712 August 2017 NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH, Cambridge, MA http://www.nber.org/papers/w23712
Strzelecki, J. 2017, ‘Painful adaptation The social consequences of the crisis in Russia’, Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich im. Marka Karpia, Centre for Eastern Studies, no. 60, Warsaw, Poland.
Treisman, Daniel, and Andrei Shleifer. 2005. “A Normal Country: Russia after Communism.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 19 (1): 151-174.
TsEPR [Tsentr Ekonomicheskikh i politicheskikh reform – trans. Centre for Economic and Political Reform], 2016, ‘Kak vyzhivaiut rossiskie sem’i’ [trans. ‘How Russian Families Survive’], Available online: http://cepr.su last accessed 31 March. Direct PDF link: http://cepr.su/2016/12/21/%D1%81%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%B8%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%82%D1%8C-%D0%BD%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%BE%D0%B3%D0%BE%D0%B4%D0%BD%D0%B5%D0%B3%D0%BE-%D1%81%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B0/ Summary in English here:  http://cepr.su/2017/05/17/low-standard-of-living-in-present-day-russia/

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.

Automobile masculinities and neoliberal production regimes among Russian blue-collar men.

Automobile masculinities and neoliberal production regimes among Russian blue-collar men.

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This post is a bit of a ‘cut and shut’ – British slang for two written off cars that have been welded together, cleaned up and sold to an unsuspecting client.

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I had written a little about the meaning of ‘car culture’ in my book – how there seemed to be two groups of men in my Russian town – those who had a more ‘rebellious’ and fun-loving attitude towards car ownership – and frequently bought ‘bangers’ to tinker with. And those that aspired to pricer foreign and quasi-foreign (the new range of Ladas) cars. The latter group also associated their car ownership with ‘making the grade’ in new, non-Russian factories. A classic class-consumption-neoliberalism paper was emerging.

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On the left the new Lada Priora – a ‘quasi-foreign’ car. On the right, a traditional Lada, lovingly and ironically referred to by its owner as a ‘Qashqai’ (heavily advertised on Russian TV as a middle-class car signifying social mobility)

Then in 2015 two opportunities arose – to publish with Charlie Walker on Global Masculinities, and the write a second paper on Automobilities for A Workshop in Regensburg on the Postsocialist street. However, some of the material for that workshop wasn’t so useful for Charlie’s book chapter and so I cut it.

The book chapter is more about subaltern masculinities and the possibility of agency – dramatized by choices and talk about car ownership. It, perhaps not so successfully, makes use of Lazzarato’s ideas on machinic enslavement.

The paper – the short version follows – is more about challenging the western-centric ideas about automobility that emerge from Urry’s work. The main point is that car use can be influenced by consumption and status norms in the West, yet have other meanings locally, many of which revolve around sociality.

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The local shop. ‘avtolavka’. ‘Mam! Avtolavka priexala!!!’ The highlight of a village kid’s day.

Paper summary:

 Working-class men have found themselves in an unparalleled position of subalterneity in such societies (Kideckel 2002). They are faced with an ‘illusory corporatism’ (Ost 2000): state, and employer relations are exclusory and seek to impose a strong form of neoliberal labour disciplining and dispossession. Elites and the emergent middle classes alike see workers as little more than politically quiescent, mechanical-turk operators of moribund Soviet plant in dying factories of industrial hinterlands far from Moscow. …they should be grateful to be given the privilege to unthinking remake the self into a pliant, self-sacrificing, and interchangeable cog in the newly emergent transnational operations of manufacturers of global capital.

Introduction

Car ownership and the DIY skills in repairing mechanically simple old Russian cars speak to issues around the display of working-class masculinities In addition, the paper explores automobility as emblematic of uneasy social mobility and fraught engagement with new neoliberal regimes of work on the self and flexibility. Choices about what kind of car to own, whether to use credit, to buy Russia-built or ‘foreign’, whether to learn from others how to maintain it or pay a stranger – all these forks in the path of becoming automobile are statements of what kind of man a person wants to be. They are similarly subject to interpretation by others in a working-class setting. Conversations and conflicts about cars come to dramatize aspects of literal and social class mobility, immobility. Cars as markers of masculinity intersect with both aspirational fantasies (that largely remain inaccessible) and stubborn retrenchments of more traditional identities.  These ‘debates’ bespeak an uneasy relationship with the ‘desired’ car as status symbol and object of labour in the ‘Western’ factories which employ the subjects of this research.

Glocalizing automobile working-class masculinities

Private car ownership and use as representing differentiated performances of masculinity has long been a staple of youth studies. However, the majority of research has focussed on the automotive articulations of gender in terms of subcultures; cars express a form of refracted hegemonic masculinity – particularly among the dominated fraction of working-class male youth in the West (e.g. Bengry-Howell and Griffin 2007; Lumsden 2010). Often examining street racing, cruising, and car-modification – (e.g. lowering/low-riders), research on automobility comes to be associated with delinquency and deviance, which is less representative of a non-Western experience.

locally contrastive meanings – collective affordances extending to the realms of shared car ownership and homosocial tinkering in garages (Kononenko 2011). Similarly, a classed perspective finds car ownership less to do with conspicuous consumption, but as a store of value (ibid), and, in the creation of ‘carholds’, automobility, and mobility itself, as a household, rather than individual achievement (Broz and Habeck 2015).

Western-centric assumptions at the heart of Urry’s seminal scholarly treatment to show how post-socialist automobility intersects with masculinity and neoliberalism in ways that contrast with Sheller’s and Urry’s original definitions (Sheller and Urry 2000).

Automobility in Russia has, since the end of communism and the explosion in private ownership, expanded in many ways as Urry predicted – as a ‘self-organizing autopoietic, non-linear system’ which ‘generates the preconditions for its own self-expansion’ (Urry 2004: 27). In the recent post-socialist era Russians, as in the West, have come to experience the automobile as the quintessentially manufactured object and status consumption object; (Urry 2004: 25-26). However, Urry’s third, fourth and fifth systemic components are arguably incomplete in much of the non-Global North. These comprise: a)  automobility as one of the most important examples of the technical-social nexus of modernity; b) the predominant form of quasi-private mobility with other forms of movement subordinated; c) dominant in symbolic articulations of the cultural meaning of the good life and well-being (ibid). For the majority of post-socialist citizens, time-space has not yet been remade according to the logic of automobility. Access to a car, use of urban space, the symbolic meanings of mobility, remain inflected by socialist-era forms of modernity. Consequently, while the – predominantly male – driver may well appear as a techno-social-cultural assemblage (ibid; Thrift 1996), that assemblage is ‘put together’ out of the particular collision of mobility, masculinity, and neoliberal categories pertaining to the post-socialist world.

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Just three examples of post-socialist mobility will suffice to illustrate this: the either/or of mass transit and walking remain dominant in many citizens’ everyday mobilities; ‘commuting’ by car is a minority sport. Many drivers (and particularly among working-class men) interpret ownership as a practical as much as symbolic achievement and their ownership as an economic hedge against the backdrop of a generation-long experience of socio-economic dislocation – i.e. a literal store of value and as a practical resource for income generation – as described below.  The ‘good life’ and symbolic status, while important, are secondary or encompass modalities of enjoyment and leisure that are in contrast to those in the West (see, for example, Broz and Haback 2015, on the meaning of ‘day tripping’).

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As the same time as the affordances of the automobile may differ outside the Global North, the negative side of the car may not correspond. A sense of risk and uncertainty may increase with ownership. Automobility in Russia is particularly associated with the risks of accident and death, criminality, and corruption (respectively because of the infamously poor road maintenance and climatic factors, and an abysmal culture of driving where one can still illegally buy a licence without any training; the sense of the ‘wild’ open road populated by bandits and thugs, corruption whereby the highway police are viewed as worse than thieves). Few car journeys are seen as having the ‘seamless’ potential of point-to-point travel as in the Global North (Urry 2004: 29). If just one category – mobility – is capable of such a contrasting inflection, then what of its intersection with similarly different meanings of masculinity and the (newly emerging) neoliberal subject? Automobility may represent a kind of masculine ‘freedom’, as Urry argues (2004: 28), but it is one tempered by understandings of risk, economic uncertainty, the valuing of practical skills, and as the main ethnographic section that follows relates – a particular kind of homosociality.

Car ownership, use and care as the nexus of the neoliberal hailing of Russian subaltern masculinity

The freedom, not of the road, but of the garage: spaces of masculine working-class sociality

Most blue-collar workers can realistically aim for ownership of a basic Soviet-era AvtoVAZ Lada model (a low-tech vehicle based on the 1960s Fiat 124 and produced in large numbers until the early 2010s), or buy a ‘western-style’ car on rather crippling credit terms. Technical skills in DIY maintenance have long been desiderata for long-term ownership for three reasons: a) very poor road maintenance and severe climatic conditions; b) poor automobile network infrastructure generally – a preponderance of low grade roads and poor distribution of vehicle maintenance businesses; c) the simple construction of most Russian cars. ‘Tinkering’ in garage blocks with acquaintances also has a long history and is a significant part of working-class homosociality – among young and old alike (Morris 2016).

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Like the use of ‘sheds’ in Anglophone culture – the garage is a masculine reserve devoted to practical activity, often for its own sake; the car may never get completely ‘fixed’, but a lot of talk and drinking ensure that homosocial ties are cemented and broadened. Recently there has been a movement to give shed culture more of a communitarian ethic which is somewhat in contrast to its culturally-specific association with Anglophone individualistic masculinity (Cavanagh et al. 2014). In contrast, Russian garage use is predicated not on the lone tinkerer, but only men coming together to reinforce bonds of competent masculinity – the garage can be cosy space of consociality, whether used as a bar or mechanic’s shop.

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Discussion

Two visions of vehicular performative masculinity emerge within the social group, the first of which, represented by Petr is broadly understood as accepting of the neoliberal challenge of working on themselves to become flexible subjects of Russia’s harsh neocapitalist order (cf. Kideckel 2008; Morris 2012). His story represents the transition from work in a Soviet-type labour habitus to ‘making the grade’ in TNC production regimes. Petr’s ‘new’ working-class masculinity is entrepreneurial, striving, and progressive. Aspiring to ownership of a Western car goes hand in hand (and is the reward for) becoming a flexible neoliberal subject, taking on consumer credit, yet also delaying gratification. These dispositions are symbolised by the purchase of a ‘new’ or, more likely ‘nearly new’ foreign car, often on credit.  Yet such cars are associated too with risk, fear and uncertainty; less used for leisure they are objects of reverence and nurture in a guarded garage block, where men pay ritual homage in cleaning and maintaining them. As Nikita notes: the car drives the man, whereas it should be the other way around.

The second group examined here are those who choose to remain in lower-paid traditional industrial employment or even semi-legal informal work, represented by ‘Nikita’. They are wary of the new neoliberal order, seeing it as restrictive of autonomy and an unequal compact. To them the ‘contract’ offered by new work and new cars is ‘unmasculine’ – automobility is about the use of cars in the ‘now’ for pleasure regardless of the ‘risk’ of damage. The ‘risk’ to them is ownership on credit of a ‘delicate’ foreign car. Thus they interpret the care for cars by the first group as unbecoming. They compare this kind of car ownership to new production regimes: involving loss of autonomy and control over life (the car controls the owner). They emphasise a more traditional performative masculinity linked to ‘banger’ car culture that revolves around self-reliance, DIY skills and the car as source of eternally tinkering homosociality. For those that ‘give in’ to calculated self-moulding according to neocapital’s requirements, the social affordances: the garage, the key spaces and making of automobile masculinity, are lost.

Thus each group’s competing versions of masculinity are linked with either adapting masculine personhood to neoliberalism or not. A particularly classed performance of gender comes to dramatize the response of persons to changes in production regimes and the advent of the neoliberal order more generally.  The significance of this case study lies in the need to acknowledge localized yet globally-inflected subaltern masculinities and how they intersect with similarly non-Global North working-class responses to both neoliberalism and automobile versions of global modernity.

Conclusion

The social self-organisation of working-class men through the shared experience of automobility and the continuing class salience of the compressed social space of the small industrial town sees subaltern masculinity reconstituted as a meta-occupational community of confrères. Just as they are hailed by the neoliberal reconception of the labouring subject, the spaces of masculine automobility also produce alternative responses.  The Russian case shows the need to acknowledge both the constrictions of working-class masculinity after the socialist project – it’s doubly subaltern positioning, but also the anchoring and solidaristic communities of the former second world that remain; automobile working-class masculinity is a site for the production of ‘small agency’ in the face of the onslaught of the neoliberal processes of self-making. Here, retreating into garage spaces, men articulate and perform practices of homosociality and car-dom that articulate, if not enact alternative forms of personhood to those offered by the TNC.

Russian men’s automobility – and ‘garage culture’ is an ideal site to witness how hegemonic masculinity is renegotiated, refracted in a particular way both in relation to and in contrast to the West. Many Russian men are subject to symbolic violence and unable to ‘propertize’ working-class masculine identity (cf. Griffin 2011: 255, and Skeggs 2004). But this study would also suggest that Skegg’s search for autonomist working-class values is not in vain (2011); automobile worker-masculinity is a project of personhood inexorably bound to, yet revealing the limits of projects of neoliberal globalization (Connell and Wood 2005).

 

Working Class Life in Anytown Russia – An Interview

I’ve been meaning to come back to the topic of my book on Everyday Post-Socialist life in the small Russian town for a while. Having just done an interview for Sean’s Russia Blog gives me a good opportunity to do that.

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The blog homepage is here. I was very busy with other things at the time of the interview so I don’t think I did a very good job of describing the breadth and depth of the stories in the book. So I’ll have another go here in brief.

Here are the questions Sean asked me, pretty much as they appear on the transcript. They’re in italics. My more considered answers follow and include some reflection on what I actually said in the blog interview.

Interview: Jeremy Morris

  1. Your book is about everyday life in small industrial town of Izluchino. Where is this town and what is it’s postsocialist dowry? Why is everyday life important to study in a place like Izluchino?

The town is just one example of the small industrial, working-class communities that exist today in Russia. It isn’t necessarily representative, because it is in Kaluga region. Kaluga has all kinds of relative advantages as a region which feed into local economic opportunities. On the other hand, it faces the same issues as most other places – rust belt deindustrialization, the still keenly felt withdrawal of enterprise support for local infrastructure and so on.

The dowry is a term I borrow from Kaika and Swyngedouw (2000) via Elena Trubina who speaks of the ‘worthless dowry’ of Soviet industrial modernity (Trubina 2013). The urban dowry is the imposing elements of  (often Soviet-) build environment that accompany technological networks. These are both the source of risk (accidents, pollution, unemployment) and the life-blood of industrial communities, even now. I critique the idea of industrial Russia as ‘worthless dowry’ as it reminds me of ‘modernization’ theories more generally, through which space, and ultimately people are reconstructed in a hierarchy of value. Workers in small towns at the bottom. But it is at the bottom that so many people live and call home. They don’t think about it in terms of ‘risk’ and danger. So a lot of the project is about giving voice to the normalization of the small town experience. Making it ‘anytown’.

  1. Reading the book, it’s clear that you developed close relations with your respondents. Who are these people? How did you meet them and how did your relations with them shape how you approached your understanding of postsocialist daily life?

 

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What was surprising to me was that if you show you’re prepared to listen, people will take that as goodwill and talk to you. And I tried in the book to be faithful to my ‘informants’ or research participants. I met some of them through my summer connection to a small village nearby. But most of them I built relationships with long term by being in the town and sharing in their lives. This also shaped my approach – to try to bring out as much of what was normal and everyday – as what was ‘bad’ or difficult. So there’s a lot in the book about relations of support, reciprocity, the informal economy and ‘getting ahead’, as much as ‘getting by’. Although simplistic ideas about ‘social mobility’ and entrepreneurialism are dealt with critically.

  1. You write that your book is “not a description of deindustrialization or factory life, nor is it a story of dispossession, pauperization and trauma after the end of the Soviet Union.” Rather it’s about how people make their life habitable. Talk about the concept of habitability and its centrality to your understanding of daily life in Izluchino.

Having said that there’s a lot in the book about the ‘normal’ experience of everyday life, there’s also a lot of traumatic feeling expressed by young and especially older people – often in terms of the loss of a ‘social contract’ and social wages from the factory town. This was vividly expressed to me when I was interviewing a man in his 50s who had worked in the town his whole life and who felt, even now, completely betrayed by the processes of post-communist transition.

His and other stories were supported by changes in the built environment I personally witnessed, such as the decorative Soviet canteen signs being taken down to be sold as scrap and the local authority’s inability to fund the repair of the local Soviet-era theatre and formerly well-equipped secondary school. So ‘habitability’ emerged as one way of talking about both ‘normalisation’ of life, and about the ongoing sense of loss – people’s awareness of losing out, but their commitment to making the best of the present in the local here and now. In another context I wrote about people’s local patriotism in terms of ‘malaia rodina’ – little motherland. This was a term people used in the town too.

 

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  1. The issue of time has a presence in the book and how people situation themselves in it and understand their lives through it. How does how Izluchino’s residents understand the past and present, their feeling of being “out of time,” and “inbetween” function?

This question was very much answered in terms of the sense of loss described in the previous section. What was surprising was that it also applied to younger people – some of the now in their thirties and forties and who were only kids or not even born in the USSR. This is still making me think a bit differently about the meaning of the word ‘nostalgia’.

  1. Your study is about personhood and working class identity. What does working class mean and how has life in post-Soviet Izluchino changed it?

This is really tricky and I don’t think I can do justice to it in a blog post. Personhood is a just a way of drawing attention to the socially-shared and experienced aspects of ‘identity’. I used it to avoid too much the language of the ‘self’, which is so associated with a middle-class, bourgeois sense of identity – acquisitive, individualistic, and interpreted in similarly negative ways by working-class people all over the world. Here Bev Skeggs’ work was really instructive.

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  1. What about the gender dimensions of this working class identity? How has it shaped postsocialist masculinity and femininity, men and women?

One thing I am really happy about is how many women’s stories there are in the book. In fact you could say they dominate in the end, or at least resonate most. There is a lot from the perspective of the ‘old guard’ of women who quite often were the real ‘builders of communism’ in this town: the librarian, the forewoman of the main factory. They are left holding on to the remnants and trying to make it work – an impossible situation. Of course at the same time they are expected to hold the family together too. The classic ‘double-burden’ that many scholars of Soviet gender talk about. Then there are the younger women. There’s a chapter about three women in their early twenties making different choices – social mobility through migration, education, local compromise, and also the informal economy. One thing I would have liked to say more about is the mass of working women ‘at the bottom’ in shop work. There were only two times I had arguments with people concerning the material I collected for the book: a Russian colleague and a Western businessman both expressed disbelief when I told them how little women in shops were paid.

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  1. What role does the informal economy play in Izluchino?

This is a topic I’ve really done to death elsewhere. But, as in the interview, I’d stress how ‘black work’, or ‘cash-in-hand’ day laboring and gypsy cab driving is both a trap and an ‘opportunity’, and experienced as such by people. It’s both freedom from a ‘day job’ in the factory, and also drudgery of another, even more exploitative, and self-exploitative kind. But still some (men) prefer the ‘freedom’ of the unregistered taxi work, than the factory (whether old-school Soviet type, or new, shiny Western type). What does that tell us about blue-collar work now in the 21st century?

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  1. Talk about the generational experience of Izluchino’s residents. How do the experiences of elderly and younger people intersect and diverge?

This I think is answered already.

  1. The collapse of the Soviet system necessitated the transformation of the self to suit a capitalist economy and society. How do working class people of Izluchino address the challenge of becoming “flexible subjects” in an increasingly neoliberal atmosphere?

This is also partly covered by the ‘person’, v. ‘self’ discussion. Also in the bit on the informal economy. Some people buckle up and dive into the remaking of the self – though consumption and production (and retraining to work in new jobs and industries). They squeeze the sovok small town out of themselves, sometimes literally (the story about the merchandiser woman who tries to reinvent herself in Moscow). Others, like my favourite Nikita, do everything they can to avoid self-work, including living ‘underground’ in the informal economy, or staying in the terrible working conditions and pay of the local cement factory.

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  1. Finally, most of our understanding of Russia life in general, and life under Putin specifically through the big city—Moscow especially. How does daily life in towns like Izluchino say about “Putinism”?

For this answer I refer to the piece I did for Current History: Putinism has little to say to working-class people and I resist the idea that they are somehow more vulnerable to populist rhetoric (although I’ve written about why they vote for the LDPR). What’s really depressing is how much punishment and lowering of living standards all Russians can put up with. One can’t help but look at Russian politics through the age-old prism of elites’ disregard for human life and human dignity. There is a cynicism at the top and a sense of disconnect from ordinary people that of course one finds everywhere in the world. Only in Russia it is pretty coarse.

But I don’t want to end on that note. Rather I’d like to give the word to one of my research participants:

I’m just a bloke…. Those who know how to work know many other things besides and so won’t lose out. They can do things with their own hands. They get a satisfaction from it – that they did it themselves. I suppose it’s a kind of inner happiness [dushevnyi pod’em]. You’ve just got to try to do it! Don’t be afraid, someone will see and try to help you if you are prepared to help yourself. […] This is where I’m comfortable, my habitat [sreda obitaniia], and I this is where I will stay.

 

Working-class voters in the 2016 Russian parliamentary election: ‘Better LDPR than the party of power’

160425143959_4_guys_976x549_afpria_nocredit_u4x1gWhat have Trump, Brexit and Russia’s 2016 elections got in common? While it’s debatable whether the referendum and presidential elections represent a revolt against the elites – by whom and for whose benefit, we should immediately ask –  the Russian elections surely are completely unrelated – after all, the ruling party increased its share of the vote?

5cpwbcg8uyzuUsually Russian elections are something I largely ignore. My research has been about the ‘everyday’ experience of ordinary Russians, and formal politics is a topic my working-class informants usually actively avoid, beyond their misinterpreting Navalnyi’s most successful slogan. They insist that the slogan applies to more than just United Russia: that all politicians and bureaucrats are ‘crooks and thieves’. The most political statement I can recall from my informants was in 2010: that Medvedev and the government would never have the interests of the people at heart and would only act for the benefit of city-folk. With such cynicism and distrust of politics as a main narrative, you can probably tell where I’m going with the bundling of Trump, Brexit and Russia.

However, it so happens that when I arrived in my new job here in Denmark, one of the first things I was asked to do was to give a public talk on the ‘meaning of the Russian elections’. Beyond a rather spiteful spat between Russian political scientists arguing about the absolute and percentage share of the vote for the ruling party, United Russia, and the disappointment about the opposition’s performance, surely the only possible take away would be the tightening of the ruling elite’s grip on the administrative delivery of votes for ER?

picture1I’m not qualified to really engage in analysis of voting patterns or the validity of the term electoral authoritarianism and so on, so for me the only result worth noting, apart from the fall in turnout, was that while all the parties’ vote share fell (apart from UR), LDPR’s rose – Zhirinovsky’s nationalist and populist party. While acknowledging LDPR’s links and usefulness to the Kremlin, let’s leave aside the issue of whether LDPR is a real political party and whether Zhirinovsky is a real – i.e. free – political actor. These issues are not relevant.

Leaving aside the rise in UR’s share – not a ‘real’ phenomenon but rather an artefact of ballot stuffing, administrative resources, and outright falsification, the only ‘real’ winner in improving showing was LDPR (their absolute number of votes of course, fell from 2012, but then so did everyone else’s). In fact, if we wanted to underline LDRP as a significant fixture of Russian electoral, not to mention political, life we could point to the consistency in percentage vote share in the elections since 2003: 11, 8, 11, 13, as well as the party’s back-from-the-dead resurrection after the 1990s. LDPR is the only party machine apart from the Communists to survive intact the whole of the post-Soviet period of electoral politics. Sergei Shpilkin’s assessment of fraud puts the real voting figures for LDPR at 17%, v. 18% for Communists and 40% for United Russia. Real turnout according to him was 37%.

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As Alexei Makarkin rightly pointed out in 2007 – to its voters, Zhirinovsky’s disingenuous opposition positioning and his clear links to the Kremlin are irrelevant. LDPR remains attractive to conservative patriots who are pro Putin foreign policy, nostalgic for the USSR in some way, distrusting of the state in general and harbour anti-elite sentiment simultaneously. And my small ethnographic sample bears out the paradox of ‘outsider-loyalty’ identity among voters. If the political histories weren’t so different, it might be worth comparing LDPR voter identity to the Jacksonian world-view of middle- and lower-class Americans that it is argued swung Trump’s election.

images-1LDPR had the most expensive campaign spending 50% more than ER ($10m). Arguably, it also ran the best targeted media campaign of any parties in the election, with clear and simple media messages – particular those of interest to vulnerable citizens and which are sensitive areas for UR – inflation on food products, access to medicine, access to housing finance. These important and highly resonant issues were overshadowed by the attention given by the media to LDPR’s typically provocative and chauvinist foreign policy pronouncements such as ‘Return the borders of the USSR’, and ‘an end the humiliation of Russians’. These were but two of a number of catchy slogans broadcast on a loop, in the waiting area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo international airport in August, for example. This exclusive focus on LDPR’s nationalist rhetoric is also present in Western analyses of the election, [with Andrew Monaghan describing the party as merely ‘nationalist’.] Only four of the 28 well-produced TV ads were on the subject of foreign policy and differed little from the government’s formal policy. What resonated with my informants were specific measures like caps on pay ratios between CEOs and workers, and policies to restrict debt collectors’ activities – loose credit policies were likened to drug pushing.  LDPR as a self-styled protest party is also evident in Sevastopol billboards responding to ER campaign. ‘Vote LDPR or carry on putting up with it.’

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[This placard was actually from 2015]

Makarkin also finds what he calls a periphery of protest voters who might vote LDPR given lack of alternatives, given Zhirinovsky’s move to ‘mainstream’ great Russian chauvinism  which is anti-Soviet and anti-West, and not particularly ‘extreme’ against backdrop of Putin’s foreign policy. In his latest piece Makarkin seems to indicate LDRP’s continuing success as a kind of maturing and greater realism on part of lower-middle class and lower class electorate – ‘we’ll take our elite-led chauvinism with a pinch of oppositional salt – and after all, Zhirinovsky can be no worse than the corrupt URs. The Communists, Opposition and others who are always going to lose.’ People can choose unthinking or thinking loyalty to Putin; choose internal emigration; or choose LDPR – and strikingly Makarkin includes disaffected youth in this equation – something of the Bernie Sanders-Trump linking there. And what Makarkin describes was pretty much exactly what I encountered among my long-term informants: People switching from other parties, including UR to LDPR, but not only that of course – what I was able to examine was the more substantive reasoning behind their voting behaviour.

nggvrlk2e0fhThus, LDPR, Trump and to a lesser extent the Brexit campaign came together to prompt me to re-examine my long-term ethnographic research data in a more explicitly political way.  What emerges is the attraction, regardless of political system, of populist reactionary currents that cross left-right political classification and challenge traditional survey methods. Political ethnography – engaging with local contexts and individuals and communities – can help understand the ‘mature’ phase of electoral authoritarianism in Russia, by acknowledging the complexity of ordinary voters’ views, values and positions, regardless of who they vote for.

Fact is we don’t have much of a dataset of political ethnographies of populist voting, so I offer a proxy attempt at one here. The point of the piece is to illustrate the potential for political ethnography to enrich our comparative understanding of politics and society. So, even though Russian, British and US electoral politics are completely different, talking to voters ethnographically seems to uncover some commonalities. As Jan Kubik notes, a contribution of political ethnography may be to focus on processes of opinion formation – this takes place and changes over time. But talking to people about politics is harder than you might think. What follows is a small sample of my revisiting of informants before and after the election.

Non-voters. These are the biggest group – borne out by the district and national results – ‘We would vote LDPR, but we don’t vote. Why would we?’ Said by man in his 50s about whole family. This was the same person that in 2009 told me Medvedev would never care about ‘people like him’.  Zhirinovsky is not a serious politician, but at least he’s genuine ‘nastoyashii’. He has the right idea about recreating the borders of the USSR; Russians were the biggest victims of the end of the USSR.   The younger men in this family had similar views, but if anything were more xenophobic. Victimology, trauma, loss, anger. Dangerous emotions regardless of whether or not they are expressed at the ballot box. I write about trauma and loss at length in my book. ‘I don’t know a single person who voted. I wouldn’t even know where to go to vote.’

681b7301372fe9601b006be4b32012cb-i900x470x555Attitudes towards opposition – cynicism towards Navalnyi (I don’t vote for him, but….) – ‘how can he be walking around if he hasn’t done a deal?’ And can we answer that? ‘Opposition is divided and ordinary people can see that’ (cf. David White’s EEP piece 2015). ‘I don’t watch his stuff. It’s just for Muscovites’. This turned out to false. The informant, a 30-yr-old male with technical education working in Turbine factory and on above average wage later sent me a link to Navalnyi videos about Medvedev’s dacha – published on YouTube three days before the election. There’s an interesting argument that this intersects with about the broadening and flattening of internet audience in Russia that has political implications which I’ll come back to. ‘I never thought about voting for them’ – the dominant narrative about opposition. ‘Cultural’ distance in terms of class, metropolitan identity, etc, is a factor, surely.

My ‘thinking’ LDPR informants 1. ‘Protest vote with nowhere to go – desperation’: Q. Do you like Zhirinovsky? A. I don’t like ER. ‘Zhirik is a clown but I voted for him because we need to send a message and there is no way of doing that. UR has too much power. This is the last time UR will win big.

My ‘thinking’ LDPR informants 2. Tactical opposition vote’ ‘I think UR has too much power. I voted for the opposition. So that the UR has limits’ ‘uprava’ (?) – also connotations of justice and punishment. ‘I voted against UR, so that they get a normal competition.’ Did you vote for UR in the past? Doesn’t answer at first ‘A the moment, UR is like a monopolist. It passes its own laws, and puts them into practice itself and controls them’   So you think a counterbalance is needed? You said many people didn’t vote. Did people discuss this? ‘Yes. I did vote for UR before, but then I found out lots of interesting things. [referring to Navalnyi Medvedev dacha video] A lot of people said the same thing to me: why bother voting when UR will win just the same.

Regional and local concerns. Almost all the important posts are held by representatives of UR. Take the Regional Governors, and accordingly the regional administrations […] I discussed my choice with no one.’ So you’re unhappy with the regional regime [stroi]? How does that affect your thinking? ‘Almost all the higher-ups are corrupt and wallowing in bribes.’

Thinking KPRF (Communists) informant 1:   ‘Almost everyone was labouring under the illusion that Clinton would win. But during the last six months I have had the feeling that Trump would win…. What about our elections? Yes. I voted. I voted for the Communist Party. But not because I trust them. but rather to “squeeze” votes away from the UR. Unfortunately, after the elections this year, I am finally convinced that the opposition in our country DOES NOT EXIST. For whomever you vote the result will be UR… Everyone I talked about the elections to (more than a hundred people), did not vote for UR. Mostly – for the KPRF and the LDPR.’ Unlike LDPR informants, this informant struggled to find paying work putting her more in the camp of other informants who do not vote but used to vote LDPR. Also – women don’t vote so much for LDPR.

‘Thinking’ LDPR informants 3. Other opposition parties are too weak’ ‘Why not vote for other parties – Rodina, Yabloko, Spravedlivaia Rossiia?’ ‘I think the other parties are too weak. I might have voted for Communisits, but I don’t like Ziuganov so much’.

omon_1471979113434_1471979139 Socio-Economic context: Downward spiral of economy. Labour unrest – miners in Rostov (unpaid wages), farmers in Kuban, unemployment, underemployment. No safety valve is available. Massive income destruction: high inflation AND ruble devaluation means real incomes of ‘average’ industrial workers falls from $800 to $200. Best paid workers among my informants earn 40,000 roubles at VW. This is $600. They earned around 30,000 roubles in 2012 which was around $1000. Can import substitution soften this? – not really – inflation+quality and trust issues are key. Division in my informants between those voting at all = getting at least an average salary. And those not voting because completely disillusioned and ‘excluded’ = those suffering non-indexed wage cuts, stoppages and wage arrears.

Electoral Data for districts where informants live: they are typical – i.e. Communists do not do better than nationally, neither do LDPR (important because in some Regions they outperform). Focus on UR and LDPR. Three types of electoral district – metro, district urban – typically 10-30k inhabitants plus villages, rural UR got 40, 45, 50+ in these districts. In the oblast as a whole 45% LDPR got 15-20% across board; KPRF got 15%. Side note: Yabloko got 226 votes from the 44,000 electors in the district studied (turnout was less than 50%. PARNAS got 107. These parties did about twice as well in the metropolitan districts of Kaluga (2-3% of the vote)

‘I found out lots of interesting things.’ Internet penetration of opposition messages. Traditional view of TV and internet constituencies – separate ‘parties’ in Russia according to Muratov (Novaia gazeta editor). Cottiero et al. 2015 in Nationalities Papers confirm this is no longer the case – Internet a mirror of society. Is this ‘bad’? This comment from an informant was interesting : ‘I found out lots of interesting things.’ Which cemented his anti UR vote. What was he referring to? To Navalnyi, which he and others had previously denied was even on their radar. This was true in 2012 when I surveyed internet use by my informants. But striking, now, internet habits of my ‘conservative’ informants are more omnivorous. Here is an indication of the diversity of internet current affairs sources:

lxqpaw4ndy4https://www.youtube.com/user/kamikadzedead – latest post on corruption in leadership of Russian football association (Mutko) by Dmitri Ivanov. He is a ‘liberal’ middle-of the road vlogger. Some association with 2011-12 protests, white ribbon movement and ‘League of electors’ movement.

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https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsAw3WynQJMm7tMy093y37A Navalnyi on Medvedev dacha

downloadhttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtO0TzSAoIOzTnTsQeywSSw Mount show with Daniel Kaigermazov– unlike others has an outlet on VK as well as YouTube – anti-American anti-Ukraine satire.

Some conclusions: Uses of micro/ethnographic qualitative portraits of voter choice that include exploration of political values and socio-economic context helps avoids issues that have dogged interpretations of poll mapping post-brexit/trump: ecological fallacies. As Economist James Kwak notes in criticising the rise of big data journalism: ‘Some of those [Trump] voters will be racists. Some will be poor people concerned about their economic future. Some will be poor racists concerned about their economic future’ clearly there is a real problem with group tendencies and sorting producing knowledge of questionable value. Trump voters had lower education – but that doesn’t map on to class or income neatly – plenty of insecure workers with degrees in the US as elsewhere, and in some parts of US there are high income areas with low education. Political anthropology can provide more than just snapshots of the landscapes of values that cut across so-called class-gender-ethnicity divisions, and that inform voting and political consciousness – a kind of political intersectionality.

So is this just a repackaged reading of ‘white working-class anger’ = racism & sexism? No, I really think this kind of recourse to a crude ‘identity politics’ is part of the problem, not the solution – witness the panning Paul Krugman got when he used this term recently. A better approach, one that still acknowledges identity but is more reveal the complexity of reality is that by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell  Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016) (she popularised the concept of emotional labour) – on a link between political voting and ‘deep story’ – internalised emotional value systems. Indeed this is how Hochschild explains the electoral success of the tea party with poorest US citizens. Unsurprisingly her book has been in demand recently.

The deep story for Hochschild is a story of resentment, exclusion and neglect. My voters ‘deep stories’ reveal long-term value systems (in the book, but less in the ‘electoral’ talk), some of which are inherited from Soviet mores, as well as the despair, anger and betrayal identified among protest and populist voters elsewhere. However, they also reveal mobile, shifting evaluations of electoral politics and politics in general – dare I say it, there is practical adaptation to electoral authoritarianism here that is sophisticated and nuanced; ‘sophisticated’ reasoning –I hesitate to use that word – surely all political reflection is sophisticated. But too often pollsters, journalists and even academics infer simplistic reasoning. Especially when it comes to less-educated or working-class persons.

Two social geographers Christian Parenti and Matthew Richmond wrote two of best pieces I’ve read on Trump victory and actually analysing voters’ concerns. First talks about voters taking Trump seriously but not literally, a point worth making in comparison to Zhirinovsky’s populism and about voters themselves.  Richmond rather hyperbolically calls Trump’s victory a ‘historic crisis in the epistemic basis on which we understand political change.‘ , but then goes on to make a more valid point about the dangers of social science in general inevitably reproducing the bias of the social group conducting it. ‘In simple terms, we must move closer to the social worlds that quantitative and theoretical political science purports, but largely fails, to represent.’ – he highlights as challenges to quantitative approaches, issues of unquantifiable uncertainty, demographic boundedness as a false premise, the persistence of two-dimensional left-right axis of political positioning. Richmond refers to Bourdieu’s example of the pollster’s non-response as the most interesting, most meaningful response (Distinction: 398).

Unsurprisingly, his piece calls for more involved qualitative work on how political opinions emerge and coalesce:  ‘How does their evolution into political subjects unfold, so that they move from the “don’t know” category into voting for Trump, or remain in the “don’t know” category despite being a target of his hate?’ Richmond ends up arguing for active listening, as opening up political space. It is not passive to listen. Richmond:  political subjectivity as a space of possibilities is important because it highlights the fact that the regularities we observe in the world, including in the political behaviour of different populations, have structural bases but are radically undetermined.’

All our ‘examples’ of populist success – even the meagre one of LDPR – indicate the dissatisfaction among voters with the status-quo. Of course, the electoral contexts are completely different. However, even in the authoritarian system of Russia where the ruling party is guaranteed a large majority – indeed constitutional majority, absolute support for the status quo fell significantly. Is this like the Jacksonian interpretation of Trump’s victory in US? In a way, yes. LDPR and to a degree the other ‘systemic opposition’ can access not people’s ideology, but a set of deeply held values that go back in time and are formative of aspects of the Russian state’s character itself: fear of enemies, the urge for social justice in a kind of ‘deserving estates’ form (many of my informants come from labour aristocracies fallen on hard times). There is also fear and awe of the state as a punitive mechanism in equal measure, and support from the individualist estates of Russian society – small business, skilled and technical workers. But again, like Jacksonian values there are contradictions indicative of the cultural-historical roots of such populism, with LDPR voters also responding to ideas about just claims of ‘equality of dignity and right’ based on self-reliance and in-group membership of a folk community  (Russel Mead 1999: 12-14).

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.