Category Archives: working-class

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 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).

Post-socialist working-classes as subalterns?

The relevance of ‘post-colonialism’ to post-socialist contexts just keeps cropping up in the most diverse of places (Snochowska-Gonzalez’s recent piece, and my colleague Kevork Oskanian’s work), so while it’s not the main focus of any of my work at the moment, it’s definitely worth making some space to think aloud.

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A book I’d like to have written! – another thing that prompted me to write this post was rediscovering an essay I wrote in 1997 about the Zapatistas and Franz Fanon.

What initially kicked off my interest in the applicability of the term ‘subaltern’ was its use by David Kideckel in his 2002 article: ‘The Unmaking of an East-Central European Working Class’ in Postsocialism. London: Routledge, pp.114-132. In the undergraduate class I teach on anthropological approaches to post-socialism, I ask students to read that article alongside this one: Stenning (2005) ‘Where is the Post-socialist Working Class? Working-Class Lives in the Spaces of (Post-)Socialism’, Sociology, 39(5), 983-999. Then I ask them the question: What do you understand by Kideckel’s use of the word ‘subalternity’? Compare it to Stenning’s discussion of passivity?

Most of them feel that Kideckel is justified in using it. But, this is probably not really a fair question, as most of the students haven’t yet been exposed to much in the way of literature on post-colonialism.  Because of that, I usually give them a crib sheet like this:

In postcolonialism, subaltern is the social group who are socially, politically, and geographically outside of the power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland.  The term subaltern derived from Gramsci’s work on cultural hegemony, which identified the social groups who are excluded from a society’s established structures for political representation. It is a matter of debate whether he meant to use the word in place of ‘proletariat’.  “Subaltern is not just a classy word for ‘oppressed’, for [the] Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie. . . . In post-colonial terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern—a space of difference. Now, who would say that’s just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern. . . . Many people want to claim subalternity.” (Spivak, in de Kock, 1992).

spivak-y-u-no-think-subaltern-can-speak

But how does Kideckel use the word? It really is fundamental to his argument that post-socialism sees the imposition of a form of neocapitalism. For him, transition theory underestimates the pace of change in the 1990s and after. Neocapitalism is a ‘social system that reworks basic capitalist principles in new, even more inegalitarian ways than the Western model from which it derives (2002: 115). He then gives a strong hint that he sees this as related to the argument that transition can be compared to neo-feudalism – which is confusing given that feudalism and capitalism are normally seen as distinct stages of accumulation. Actually he relates the present predicament of his Romanian workers to that of peasants in Braudel’s ‘long sixteenth century’ and neo-serfdom – whereby peasants were nominally free, but landless, and still tied to a wage-paying landowner (see Makkai 1975). In this sense, Kideckel aligns his position to that of World-systems theory (Wallerstein and Eric Wolf) and the latter’s call for giving voice to the ‘people without history’, but who are always present and part of processes of globalization.  Accordingly, Romania is caught in a system of dispossession sees a Western ‘prototype’ reworked to establish a dependent semi-periphery in CEE.

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[By the way, Michael Hudson’s blog has a nice take on how neoserfdom as a term can be accommodated into the neoliberal ‘compact’. http://michael-hudson.com/2014/01/n-is-for-neo-serfdom-o-is-for-offshore-banking/ ]

So what about the subaltern? Kideckel continues his analysis by using words like ‘durable inequality’, and ‘degraded supplicants’ to describe workers. The mines close and workers, already towards the bottom of a knowledge-based division of labour under socialism, are structurally relegated again. Kideckel notes that Rudolf Bahro (1977) used the term sub-alternity to describes workers under socialism. Bahro, who also coined the term ‘actually existing socialism’, argued that workers were cut off from involvement in the ‘plan’ and forced to do the psychologically and intellectually deadening work of routine production (Gabbert 1983). Subalternity is therefore the ‘condition of psychological and intellectual narrowness experienced by those whose work provides no opportunity for aesthetic and mental growth’ (ibid). This sounds a bit woolly to me. Kideckel is much more robust – in fact he provides an eight-point definition of subalternity under post-socialism which boils down to lack of information, knowledge, representation, class solidarity, symbolic capital, and the dissolution of social networks of support.  This sounds a lot like the more recent concept of precarity to me.  The 2008 Kideckel book doesn’t have an index entry on subaltern, but does have a chapter talking about the othering process of workers.

The reason I ask students to compare Kideckel to Stenning is because of her use of the term ‘passivity’ and her concern with the need to foreground a ‘middle-position’ of agency between passivity and organised industrial action. That brings us nicely to Robert Brenner’s critique of the world-systems theory that Kideckel implicitly draws on, which he argues neglects local class structures and class struggles: ‘They fail to take into account either the way in which these class structures themselves emerge as the outcome of class struggles whose results are incomprehensible in terms merely of market forces.’ (Brenner 1982). Criticisms of Bahro revolve around the rise of worker self-organisation in Poland in the early 1980s as a refutation of his position. And all this relates to a potential criticism of the subaltern label as effectively denying any sense of agency. It is a long time since I read much on colonialism, but the term ‘subaltern’ brings associations of utter powerlessness to mind. In my book, I talk a bit about Bhabha’s work and make use of bell hook’s famous quote on the dangers of academics thinking they can ‘talk about you better than you can speak about yourself’ – the dangers of academic interpretation on behalf of the subaltern redoubling that positioning. However, I don’t want to rehearse those arguments here. The main point is that Stenning is right – there has to be a balance between inflexible structurated and naïve ‘resistance’ positionings of the post-socialist working-class.

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As so often in such circumstances, I look for help in Burawoy’s work on Hungary and Simon Clarke’s still under-rated work on Russia.  Burawoy famously noted that workers developed a ‘negative’ class consciousness – they held communist governments responsible for not fulfilling their promises of worker’s ‘inheriting the earth’ (1992: 114). Clarke makes a very good job of explaining how the potential structural power of workers was (and remains) high, yet they remain atomized politically. He goes to great lengths to criticise the argument that the soviet system was a form of state capitalism. Instead he proposes it as a form like feudalism (What about the workers? 1992: 26). Here were are back again at a term that links to a kind of subaltern positioning, and the present.

Just like in Burawoy’s context of late socialist Hungary, we now also have social and economic conditions not keeping pace with workers’ expectations, and a new urban middle-class growing and claiming ‘too much’ of the economic resources. Clarke says that in the late Soviet context workers were subordinated in a sense that was comparable to capitalist alienation. For Clarke, class struggle could not develop as it was displaced into factional struggles in the other structures of power. Kideckel (2002, 2008) stresses the ‘unmaking’ of a working class in Romania; the pace of ‘neocapitalist’ forces there leads to extreme declines in workers’ fortunes. By contrast, Stenning and Adrian Smith emphasise the domestication of neoliberalism by ordinary people – effectively their uneasy accommodation with it – using the informal economy and survival tactics taught by socialism to get by. Repoliticisation is not offered as an option – except perhaps recently by Don Kalb. But the ‘political’ response can take many forms, as any history of colonialism shows. If we accept two conceptions of subaltern – Spivak (silenced), and Gramsci (denied political representation) and then add Clarke’s ‘subordination’, as well as a good dose of alienation and the continuation of atomization, then surely subaltern works as well as any other term.

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The centre of Kaluga in 2009 – one of my informants took me to this spot to illustrate a point about ‘powerlessness’ in Putin’s Russia.

But what about Burawoy’s ‘negative class consciousness’? – it implies, after all a political articulation of the worker’s objection to his or her positioning. Maybe ideas like ‘proletarian refusal’ are ways of linking the post-socialist workers’ tactics with those of the traditional subaltern of colonialism. Indian swadeshi stressed self-sufficiency and the ‘refusal’ of the colonisers’ goods and economic settlement (Manchester cloth). Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire use the term ‘proletarian refusal’ in name-checking Kelley’s black working-class history of the US. There are plenty of points of intersection between the tactics by the subjects of my research and Hardt/Negri’s ‘nomadism’, ‘refusal’ and ‘vogelfrei’ metaphors. (The latter – ‘free yet rightless’, derives from Marx’s own kind of Bhabha-esque interstitial conception of workers between feudalism and capital – seemingly used by Hardt/Negri as a metaphor more positive – making a virtue of precarious positioning). The tactics used by people in my research in relation to what they perceive as a ‘bad’ formal jobs include actual ‘refusal’ of formal work, engagement with informal or subsistence economies and work, self-provisioning, and other ‘tactics’. I suppose one of the real tests of the term subaltern, is the ability of groups of the dispossessed to turn tactics (boycotts of British cloth or sugar) into viable long-term strategies. A strategy, in turn means they are no longer ‘subaltern’.

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A ‘tactic’ of the powerless? graffito demanding ‘equality’ in central Kaluga, 2009.

Keywords: subaltern, post-colonialism, Kideckel, working-class,