The ‘lumpen’ and postsocialist academe’s class blindness

This post is a bit at cross-purposes – I’m writing about class from so many angles now.

First we have the old ‘lumpenisation‘ of the masses argument as a convenient peg on which to hang explanations of Putin’s popularity and the so-called passivity of Russians. Here’s our scapegoat:

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Testament to the unorginality of the argument today is that the comparison is implicitly made to Bulgakov’s objection to the Russian Revolution.

Then we have the issue of academe’s built-in middle-class perspective in any society – it reproduces bourgeois conceptions of politics, even as it makes a pretense to being ‘critical’.

But in Russia and elsewhere in the East it is worse, as any study of working-classes is like academic kryptonite – associated with the ideological straitjacket of the socialist era when all academic work had to pay lip service to a painting-by-the-numbers Marxism-Leninism.

A year ago I was asked to write a ‘review’ piece justifying the need for a new working-class studies in former communist societies. I agreed enthusiastically, but because of my book project I put the idea aside until a few weeks ago. I am not going to give details of the journal yet, as the piece should be out for blind peer review.

Anyway, I finally got back into it but immediately there was a problem – how to summarise in 4000 words the rich patina or work going on not only in social sciences – particularly ethnographically, but in labour history and elsewhere? In the end I’m not really happy with the result which is bitty, and still rather disorganised. I still like the first bit though, where I argue that in Russia in particular, normative assumptions about class are everywhere, even as ‘working-classes’ are made invisible or rendered passive ‘bydlo’ (yes Latynina, I’m looking at you!), prey to populism and the latest ‘ura-patriotism’ of Putin’s state machine.

Two recent publications really stick out as confronting this issue and I’d like to engage more with them: First is Don Kalb‘s edited book Headlines of Nation, Subtexts of Class. (I need to write a review of this soon!)

Second is this really nifty piece on Slovakia by Brian Fabo that arguably renders my own efforts rather superfluous: Rediscovering Inequality and Class Analysis in Post-1989 Slovakia.

The original impetus for my piece, however, was reading Natalia Zubarevich’s ‘Four Russias‘ pieces and discussing them with my Political Economist colleague, the wonderful Richard Connolly. I then came across Anatoly Karlin‘s well-reasoned objections to Zubarevich’s position. While I don’t share his pro-Putin agenda, the highlighting of the elitism and barely disguised contempt of ordinary Russians by the intellectual opposition is spot on (more in the comments than the actual blog).

Anyway, here’s the first bit of my piece – sans the references, maybe I should tone down the sarcasm…

Class is everywhere you look in the post-socialist world. The media are awash with stories about aspirational yet ‘normal’ ‘European’ lifestyles and the desirability of gated communities. There is the endless discussion of ‘communist-era’ mentalities and outmoded concepts such as social justice and cohesion.  Popular culture is rife with trashy stereotypes of ‘low-lifes’ and track-suit-clad petty criminals that serve as thinly veiled fantasies about the dangerous lumpenization of the post-socialist working classes. Given the persistence of semi-authoritarian governments in the former Soviet Union and resurgent populist politics in Eastern Europe, social protests are analysed for what they reveal about the growth of the middle class. In scholarship too there is selective attention and selective invisibility.

In Russia, one of the least democratic and largest of the post-socialist states, the liberal English-speaking intellectual elites bemoan what they see as the political compliance of ‘ordinary people’ to the government’s revanchist, chauvinistic and authoritarian agenda. Pensioners, rural dwellers, but even more so the blue-collar workers of the industrial ‘hinterlands’ are seen as a dangerous class of political conservatives, or worse, in Central East Europe they are seen as easy prey to populist neo-nationalist movements (Kalb 2011: 7).

Easily written off in this way, the road to modernization and democratization is reserved for the ‘creative class’, a construction that belies the continuing widespread reality of low-tech manufacturing and resource extraction which underpins many of the regions’ economies. Indeed, many of these states have become sought-after sites of manufacturing because of the new consumer markets they offer to transnational corporations. It is strange that we write off the study of workers at the very moment they may serve as a revealing crunch point at the meeting of unbridled neoliberal capital and disembedded labour between global north and south.

Just as once the working-class were the ‘vanguard’ of revolution and progress, now the ‘creative class’ are a talismanic ‘locomotive of modernisation’ and social transformation of these countries into ‘normal’ polities. ‘Middle class’ comes to stand for class studies more generally, but with little or no acknowledgment that in CEE this group still remains a ‘spirit seeking a social body.’  Similarly, when it comes to work and organizations, scholarship often focuses on the genuine success of the creative and new media industries, while the bread and butter of the socialist era – blue-collar work or the factory, is rarely the object of research, except as a form of ‘ruin-gazing’ (High 2013), or as part of the study of urban renewal and deindustrialization.

Field-site photos – what makes a factory? (And what makes an ethnography of postsocialist deindustrialisation?)

I start this blog towards the very end of the very research project it was supposed to support and disseminate – a book-length ethnographic treatment of everyday postsocialism: small town life in a Russian blue-collar community which I call ‘Izluchino’. The book is ‘safely’ (fingers crossed) in production now and I’ll be writing some more entries about it shortly. However, the process of negotiating with the publisher on the manuscript raised some interesting issues. So this is as good a time as any to start the blog.

I always imagined publishing a monograph on my town full of images – how naïve! With my present publisher we agreed on six half-tones. But recently I realised that some of my images taken in 2009 were quite low quality – the publisher requires 300dpi. So in the end I asked some of the people in my research to go back and take photos of places in the research again. They went straight out and took the photos: a wonderful example of the sometimes overlooked positive stereotype of Russians and work: if you want something done in a hurry – ask a Russian. Russian storming of deadlines – avral – is also in the book! On the one hand this was a pity as the new photos of course didn’t really capture the moments of the research. On the other, they allowed me to see visible changes over the five years the research. The next few entries will discuss the photographic recording of research and some musings on the pictures that made it, and didn’t make it into the book.

The first, and most important image, arguably, is the building where a key informant called Galina works. She’s one of the old guard – the aristocracy of labour that clings on in the town. They worked their way up to positions like foreman and brigade leader in the factories. There’s a whole chapter largely devoted to Galina, who is in her 60s now but still working. Here’s the photo of her factory in 2015 – I call it Polymer. They make pipes for the gas industry here. The factory has been in dire straits for over 15 years, but just hangs on.

Polymer_website

My friend Alyona Kudriavsteva took the photo of the factory last week (changes are some double-glazing added, not really visible in this shot, but the wall where the roofing tar had dripped down still hasn’t been cleaned in five years). By the way, ‘Filtr’ is not the firm where Galina works. Her shop shares the building.

Why this photo – well obviously there is the conveying of the drabness, the enclosuring of space by the factory – it’s a stereotypically dour and functional Soviet building. higgledy-piggledy put up in 1971 (see the brick work even tells you this – the Soviet obsession with jubilees and facticity)- possibly using some prisoner labour. Then there’s the hammer and sickle ‘device’ – deviz in Russian, from the same Latin root for ‘desire’, means ‘slogan’. The ‘intention’ of the Soviet slogan is to express and embody ‘Glory to labour’. A very common slogan that I saw out of my flat window every day when I first lived in Russia in 1995. Why is that important? Well, despite the cynicism with which the communists treatment of the working class was understood to mean anything but ‘glory’ by actual workers, Galina is a great example of someone that continues to live that slogan. For her life is work, and dignity is accessible through work, regardless of circumstances, and regardless of one’s working environment. Here is Galina in 2009 with one of her daughters.

Galina_Website

In actual fact, the factory is a relatively nice working environment – the brick-glass windows provide plenty of natural light while keeping the cold out. Galina and others really looked after it – especially the trees in the yard and the cacti on the windowsills (I wrote an article recently that starts from the premise of cacti as connecting people to memories of the socialist period). It was very interesting when a trade union organiser at one of the purpose-built shiny new German car factories in Kaluga city complained that in terms of working environment these Soviet factories were far superior. But that’s another story.

Welcome

Welcome to the Postsocialism website and blog.

This is a project bringing together all things related to my research on post-socialist societies – particularly Russia. I will also occasionally post about the nitty-gritty of doing research and trying to carve out an academic identity (and career) in terms of being categorised as  ‘that bloke that does Russian stuff’.

I published this site in Jan 2015, but only got around to posting on it in October. That already tells you something about the whole academic way of ‘doing’ things.