Category Archives: informal economy

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

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


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.



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.

lada_2170_priora imgp5191

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.


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.


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.


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’).


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).


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.



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.


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).


Informal Economy – imbricated practices and state distrust

This post is made up of some of the text I used in a talk at King’s College this week. The title is rather tentative – the state element is dealt with more in the long version.

The written version of the talk – about 4000 words, can be found on my profile here. I am in the process of writing this up as some kind of engagement with the Total Social Organisation of Labour approach and potentially, the Varieties of Capitalism literature. I am not sure yet how to develop it. Some of the most interesting questions from the audience of the talk came from political scientists. They wanted to talk more about the ‘parasitic’ versus ‘symbiotic’ aspects of informal economy, and of course, they were more interested in the state-citizen relationship.


I’ve been interested in the concept and reality of the term ‘informal economy’ (IE) since doing long-term fieldwork among working-class Russians in a small industrial town and witnessing the infinitely resourceful way they made ends meet, engaged in cash-in hand one day in informal employment, back in ‘official’ factory work in the moribund workshops making plastic pipes and steel structures for the gas industry the next.  Then on their days off they’ll be again working cash-in-hand as tradesmen in domestic homes or even industry again – the shortage of skilled workers and the underdevelopment of trades making such an arrangement necessary. On the weekend they might be using their flatbed truck to transport construction materials to a building site somewhere and in return they might get a delivery of manure for their smallholding through a third party who owns a farm, or maybe an exchange of labour for food, or perhaps no payment at all, just a promise of a returned favour somewhere down the line (Morris 2014). Of course, even ‘relaxing’ and leisure might also entail an element of informality – fishing, hunting, gathering the forest fruits – all of which, while marginal, reduce the family’s reliance on the formal economy – not only the food shop, but also the furniture shop, the repair garage, and so forth (Morris 2012b). The meaning of gleaning, does not just relate to food – a key understanding of the term among workers relates to the age-old practice of ‘obtaining’ scrap materials, or not so scrap materials from work, or making use of other resources like transport vehicles and fuel for one’s own private, or even, mutual and reciprocal use.

As you can see, because of the varieties of making-do and cash-generative or frugal self-provisioning that I’ve witnessed, I fall into the camp that sees IE as wide-ranging. One of the most recent definitions of IE by Routh (2011) is narrower:

‘informal economic activities signify activities and entrepreneurships that are not registered in accordance with the prescribed laws, are not in compliance with labour legislations, escapes monitoring by the state officials, lacks appropriate conditions at work, and mostly temporary and casual in nature.’ This is fine by me apart from the final two aspects – temporary and casual. I adopt the widest definition possible, which is just that it signifies commodified and non-commodified work activities that escape accurate or complete quantification by the state.  It includes legal and illegal activities – often it lies in a grey area between.  A good example from my fieldwork is what I call an ‘underground workshop’ making double glazing units. This work took place in a sublet part of a factory. The business itself at the sales end was registered and may have paid some sales tax, but the actual production end was entirely unregistered and the workers informally employed. In addition subsistence and provisioning activities, should, I think, remain part of what we think of as informality in Russia, given the ongoing marginality and precariousness of many people’s economic livelihoods.


In these three pictures I present a few examples of informal employment – which is a category itself representing diversity – we have a general workman paid cash for one-off specialist jobs – repair of a gas-powered heating station. Below we have the example mentioned – a more long-term example of a worker making plastic windows;  he did this job for three years – which might make us pause to think about the automatic assumption about informal work as precarious or exploitative.



Finally, we have a car mechanic working as a favour. The ‘workshop’ is actually a fully functioning factory where the owner of the car works. This last one is a good example of what makes IE so important and yet so difficult to measure or explain: it is not commodified (the ‘favour’ of welding the car may never be ‘called in’), it hardly ‘parasitic’ on the formal economy – the welding is not exactly exploitative of the factory in which is it taking place – after hours and with the permission of the foreman. These are just a tiny number of examples from my own fieldwork.

New Picture

Some activities while open to interpretation as due to economic necessity (DIY) are valued and performed as much for the inherent and intangible value: for their own sake, than for any economic benefit. This leads us to another problem – can an activity really be considered part of the informal economy if it is not perceived as ‘economic’ or in ‘cash’ equivalent terms? – I.e. we return to a staple Marxian problem – the question of the relationship between use- and exchange-value.  In one of my pieces I approached this by using the work of philosopher Alastair MacIntyre to talk about things like domestic decorative DIY (which also had economic value) as an internal good – a practice done for its own sake. MacIntyre talks of virtue ethics and the neo-Aristotelian inheritance of the holism of the activities of the household in the search for the good life. Similarly, Harding and Jenkins working in the UK context in the 1980s sought to challenge what they called the myth of the hidden economy, arguing for the need to take seriously actors’ perceptions and accounts of what they themselves are doing – as in substantivist economic anthropology (Sahlins 1974) – and to offer an alternative framework to the dualist or ‘separate’ economic model. They explored the meaning of household activities like social solidarity work as part of informality, and yet having an economic value – however difficult to define – ironing a garment for sick neighbour for example. In other words, for Harding and Jenkins, even in the West, the formal is not the actual – it is simply one element of the social construction of organisational life, the term formal economy is part of the reification of the formal nature of bureaucratic, metrics society.

And that leads us to the question – what does the weakness of that formal aspect mean for post-socialist societies? Is it to do with the importance of networking in the socialist shortage economy and that inheritance? The increased importance of social trust networks when the state has never been on your side – a micro version of Alena Ledeneva’s ‘Sistema’ argument? Or is it more to do with economic precarity in general – the need for portfolio household incomes? The latter is the vision of the ‘domestications’ of neoliberalism argument among prominent human geographers. Allied to that is the feminist geographies and heterodox economies position – sometimes in totality called ‘the human economy’ – that would see care and domestic work valued properly as well as mutual aid and self-provisioning. Finally there is the semi-culturalist and ritualist explanations from anthropology – that include explaining potato planting among the Russian middle class as a psychological insurance strategy more than an economic one.

But here I’m getting ahead of myself; we need to go back to the beginning of the term IE to set out how it developed in context. This will help assess its ongoing applicability to the post-socialist case. The anthropologist Keith Hart popularised the term ‘informal sector’ in the 1970s, but used it in a very particular context – self-employment in post-colonial Africa among the urban poor.  Thus it was a development term to talk about the economic lives of people for whom tax demands, salary slips, health insurance and mortgages were abstractions. Subsequently the World Bank and the ILO (International Labour Office) focussed on this mainly third world context in terms of IE as representing both avoidance of government regulations and taxes, and potential routes out of poverty. The World Bank website currently summarises thus: ‘a cushion for workers who cannot find a job in the formal sector. But, on the other hand, it entails a loss in budget revenues by reducing taxes and social security contributions paid and therefore the availability of funds to improve infrastructure and other public goods and services. It invariably leads to a high tax burden on registered labor. A high level of informality also can undermine the rule of law and governance. The fact that a large share of the population is openly ignoring laws, regulations and taxes can weaken the respect citizens have for the state.’ Overall then for the WB the negatives outweigh the positives and it sees formalization rather than toleration, as the answer.

But for me and many others – this position is a bit ‘chicken and egg’ implying an ideal vision of the state that the informal then proceeds to undermine. In the post-socialist context often we find informality is the response to state failures at all levels.