Ukraine, Russia, solidarity, trauma, and keeping it in the family.

soslbjndyd8jDoes the West make sense without the East?

This subtitle paraphrases Marci Shore’s reflections on Tony Judt in the context of Maidan and could serve as a fitting summary to the way the Ukraine conflict is mainly framed in terms of its impact on West-Russia relations and the way Ukraine, or rather Ukrainians, and their agency, gets lost in the discussion.

Two weeks ago I took part in a round-table in Warsaw on the Ukraine conflict, and as I mentioned in my previous post, I don’t feel we did justice to cause of European solidarity with Ukraine. In fact, I was surprised how, in an audience of Poles and academics critical of Russia, my call for a solidary response was not received sympathetically.

So I want to lay out this position again, more clearly than is possible in a round-table.

Really my position started to emerge in my own research into the responses of ordinary Russians to their ‘hailing’ by the relentless ‘black PR’ of Russian state-controlled media, about which I wrote a little in my previous post. This research became an article about the ethnographer as diplomat – or otherwise. At the same time as writing on Russians, I have seen many, too many, talks by political scientists on Ukraine in the last two years. One stands out: a book launch by my colleagues Kasia Wolczuk and Rilke Dragneva in CREES where Sarah Whitmore was discussant.

Wolczuk summed up her presentation of the book content with the pithy phrase: ‘The EU doesn’t care enough about Ukraine… and Russia cares too much’, adding ‘It’s up to Ukraine to live up to its integration choice and confront the consequences’.

While I don’t disagree in principle with that statement, at the time and now I feel this ignores the agency of ordinary Ukrainians who have already made that choice. Not only that, but focusing on the failures of Ukrainian politics avoids us confronting our own failings – particularly, the failure of European solidarity in providing enough support to Ukraine – however that ‘support’ is defined (actually in the round-table there was mention of the need for a Marshall plan for Ukraine).

So that, in essence was how I framed my contribution to the round-table.

In particular, the question of the meaning of solidarity seemed particularly apt since previous speakers at the Warsaw event – particularly Rick Fawn from St Andrews, had stressed the idea of the ‘family’ of European nations, and of course the Poles had highlighted the idea of the return to Europe of former USSR satellite states.

So this idea of familial relations – what could be a better example of solidarity? – seems a fitting way of framing things. Kinship relations demand reciprocity and mutuality – as any anthropologist will tell you.

However, I am aware of the problems with the ‘kin’ analogy. I tried another kin metaphor – how, if a family member has a drug problem (endemic corruption and the oligarchic relations that perpetuate this), then what that person needs is a therapeutic treatment, not punishment. Of course here lies a trap – skeptics of Ukraine’s ability to reform will say that this metaphor is all too apt – the addict needs coercion, as well as encouragement, they would argue. In the end, Rick Fawn and others had a better metaphor for the need for solidarity – the family member who is the victim of domestic violence – the relative has a duty to support the victim.

But in my contribution to the round-table I only had the opportunity to say a fraction of this. I had more luck in presenting some facts that indicate that Ukraine has irreversibly changed, and that these facts alone mean that an urgent ‘meeting more than halfway’ is needed from the EU. I drew attention to the fundamental fact of Ukrainian decoupling from Russia – trade with Russia is now a fraction of the figure of trade with the EU (44%) and Ukraine has, with the connivance of the IMF, of all bodies, defaulted on the Russian loan of $3bn made under Yanukovych. Gas demand, believe it or not, is half what it was ten years ago. Yes, much of this is due to the incredible economic crisis that continues, and the loss of the industrial east – all the more reason why even more help is needed now.

A simple act of solidarity that is of relevance here would the long awaited visa-free regime with the EU – this would allow remittances in hard currency to flow into Ukraine from the EU via migrant workers – hardly the argument hard pressed EU citizens want to hear, but a practical, realistic help. In fact, this would be the best ‘medicine’ for Russia too, the best way of showing true European values. There are many migrant workers from Ukraine among my informants in Russia. Visa-free travel to the EU would see decoupling increase.

But the fact is that almost no one focusses on the human cost among the most vulnerable in either Russia or Ukraine. The average pension in Ukraine is about $53 and 17% of GDP spent on pensions – the highest figure in Europe. Before the devaluation of the rouble, in Russia average pensions were around 10 times that figure. (Now they are around $240, not enough to live on). Inflation is 20% in Ukraine. It was nearly 50% last year. There will probably only be a 12% increase in indexation of benefits this year. Another practical extension of solidarity might be, not military aid of lethal weapons as many have argued, but medical, material and psychological support to the thousands of ex-service personnel now struggling with PTSD leading to alcoholism, homelessness and other ‘side-effects’ of war.

So I come back to solidarity again and the problem of ‘conditionality’: unless you fulfil ‘x’, we cannot provide ‘y’. Conditionality just doesn’t work in crisis situations like this. Just like the Greek crisis, Europe is at least as morally responsible for the situation in Ukraine now as much as any other party. Therefore Ukraine will continue to serve as a barometer for the health of a wider European project.

Back to Russia – back to the past

But what of Russia? Partly my interest in Ukraine stems from the highly poisonous effect of the conflict on ordinary Russians. And this was evident in the fieldwork encounters I began to relate in my previous post.

Really, the long piece I’ve written for the Cambridge Journal of Anthropology is about Russians and their inability to deal with Ukrainian conflict (and that inability as reflecting a wider and deeper impasse: the psycho-social effect of 25-years of not being able to deal adequately with the past) – its psycho-traumatic effects, and, among other things, its effect on the relations in fieldwork.

But let’s start with the more tangible results any political economist can see. First there is the massive demand destruction, and no end in sight of sharp income falls for most Russian citizens – note again, the pension figures mentioned above and compare the ‘before’ devaluation and ‘after’. Oil price slide aside, Ukraine is the marker, if not the overriding cause, of ordinary Russians going back to the 1990s in terms of economic insecurity – with a fall of 10% in average incomes in 2015, a figure not seen since 1990.

And in a sense the idea of the Ukraine conflict symbolizing a barrier to Russia moving to the future and repeating the past is something we see in all sorts of contexts – a retreat to ‘kitchen relations’, both in terms of not having any money to do anything else and in terms of a fear to speak too openly of one’s misgivings; a return to the garden plot; the way public life is now a party loyalty test, of any position of power, in any context.

If anything the Ukraine crisis is revealing of the Russian people as a clinical psychological case of trauma that is unresponsive to treatment. Alexei Yurchak’s most famous finding is 1991 as a ‘break in consciousness’ on the part of Russians, but really he’s just talking about the intelligentsia, and then only the progressive intelligentsia. There remains a large swathe of people, and many of them highly educated, who have not been able to collectively overcome their sense of trauma about the past.

Elena Bogdanova, in an unpublished work, puts it in this way – as a ‘bottling up’ of the past – and the Ukraine conflict sees this made evident in various psycho-social dysfunctional effects – the pathological need to believe in state propaganda, the dehumanisation of Ukrainians, the aggressive xenophobia, or, at best, the neurasthenic reaction – evident in the ‘Moscow bombing’ comment in my previous post – ‘irritability’ and lassitude are key affective states I talk about in my paper – certainly I also felt them (here I am indebted to Navaro-Yashin’s work). At the same time, there is a revealing of cognitive dissonance between the strident response of patriotic enthusiasm and the realisation that this state is untenable in the long term. And can have unpredictable consequences of disaster for Russians.

I was in Russia when the Malaysian ‘Boeing’ was shot down – and a cardinal change in perspective occurred. Russians didn’t so much say it. In fact the more strident the response: ‘Putin will show you lot’, the more I detected a fundamental disquiet. Everyone understood the long-term, devastating consequences of the ‘Boeing’ (note the metonymy as an indicator of trauma!) Even the term ‘zato Krym nash’ (but we’ve got Crimea!) is used ironically now even by those most patriotically inclined.

But the last words go to those remnants of the independent Russian media. They talk of the social catastrophe the conflict in Ukraine has accelerated in Russia: the ‘loss of public understanding of the reality of its own existence, economically, socially, culturally and politically; this far reaching process has been the cause of the moral degradation of society’ (Kobrin 2015).

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Russia-Ukraine conflict and fieldwork relations

I am going to make a couple of posts that touch on the Ukraine conflict. This is prompted by three things. First, I was invited to contribute to a panel some time ago at the 2015 ASA. I spoke there on ‘diplomatic relations’ as a metaphor for field relations with Russians after the Ukraine conflict. Second, I then developed that talk into a paper for Cambridge Journal of Anthropology which should come out this year – and some bits didn’t make into the final cut – so I’ll use them here. Finally, this month I was invited to an event at the University of Warsaw International Relations Institute to take part in a round table on the Ukraine conflict with other academics and the Ukraine Ambassador. This was my first foray into the territory of IR and I can’t say it was successful. My attempt to focus on the missing agency of Ukrainians and my perception of the lack of European solidarity for their situation didn’t get a very sympathetic hearing. I will write more about that in the next blog post.

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Moscow scene I passed daily in 2014 – was always empty!

Researchers as Insider/Outsiders

Here I want to highlight some of the reflections on fieldwork relations that in part will appear in the CJA piece. Following up on a chapter in my book, I wanted to look at how the ethnographer and informants alike are unwilling ‘diplomatic’ representatives of their origin countries. I talk about political neutrality in field relations, indirect communication, and affective states that both facilitate and threaten ‘everyday diplomacy’.  In their examination of the researcher’s positionality in fieldwork in both Turkey and Azerbaijan, Ergun and Erdemir (2010) discuss how foreignness and cultural familiarity interact with research contexts. They summarize well some of the problems with insider status that are particularly relevant to the Russian context: an ‘insider, for example, may be perceived as being untrustworthy because of his or her knowledge of and connections to the community under study’.

Ironically, it was my outsider status – as non-Russian – which allowed a degree of greater access in my fieldwork (as well causing distrust and disbelief by others). Did the lime kiln technicians my monotown genuinely believe that our conversations might get back to the director? Russian reality suggests that their fears are reasonable. While cross-cultural issues constitute the ‘elephant in the room’ for foreign area studies researchers working on Russia, outsider status can help not only to mitigate, but also to reverse the researcher–researched relationship, particularly when it is understood in terms of cultural exchange (see Charlie Walker on this – 2011). This is no less true as Russia moves further away from its closed past (if anything since the Ukraine conflict, a sense of cultural difference has been emphasized by the state itself and people are more inquisitive than ever about ‘representatives of Europe’). By the same token, my foreignness, allowed me to witness both first hand and in stories, significant illegality – particularly in the informal economy, but also in terms of stealing from work, and so on. What possible risk would there be from a foreigner – the status of whom in Russia is always viewed as contingent, powerless and temporary? At the same time, what Ergun and Erdemir call ‘cultural proximity’, evidenced by linguistic competency and lived experience, can allow a researcher to cross over temporarily into partial ‘insider’ status which can build rapport, trustworthiness and openness.

 

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My ‘lime kiln technicians’. Eventually they talked to me!

 

In the book I go on to talk about the challenge of justifying ethnography to a Polsci/Area Studies ‘audience’ in the academy – particularly departmental colleagues, grant agencies and REF committees. In fact, I just got back my own internal REF evaluation – done anonymously at College level. It draws attention to the small ‘data sample’ of my ethnography to justify not awarding a higher number of ‘stars’. For those unfamiliar with the REF there is some commentary here. In the ‘Diplomacy’ paper for ASA, I talk at length about two ‘groups’ of people in my research – ‘national patriots’ who drew attention to the Ukraine conflict in our talk, and others who more subtly reflected politicisation by referring to my ‘Europeanness’. Here’s a shortened version of some of the reflections in the original paper. (The Europe stuff got cut for the CJA version)

The national patriot informants

From some informants their response to the researcher after the Ukraine conflict was predictable based on their previous clearly expressed patriotic and anti-West views: Sasha is a long-standing key informant who has always enjoyed making combative and provocative statements about the decadent and treacherous West. For as long as I have been visiting Russia, informants like Sasha have readily made reference to geopolitical issues, British and US foreign policy, and in linking the researcher and origin country, history, and politics in the widest sense. Partly reflecting popular history broadcasting and publishing in Russia in the Soviet Union (think of the series Seventeen Moments of Spring), informants have commented, seriously and jokingly about issues such as WWII: ‘where was the second front when we needed it?’ The ambiguous role of Britain as an ally to the USSR – as reflected in popular Russian history –  is attached in conversation to the person of the researcher, albeit temporarily. More recently, in the late 1990s, British nationals in Russia were likely to encounter personal antagonism during the NATO bombing of Serbia. I recall not being able to avoid adopting a ‘public’ position in conversation with a group of informants then. In a discussion characterised by anger on the part of my interlocutors at NATO actions, I stated that ‘generally’ I was against the air campaign, without ruling out a view that military intervention of another form against Milosevic might be acceptable to me.

In current fieldwork, Sasha is representative of the politicised, national-patriot encountered.  A former factory forklift driver and now eking out a living in the informal economy, Sasha, in one conversation in 2014 he expressed himself thus: ‘wait until winter. Over there in your Europe you’ll be cold and hungry enough when we cut your gas off. You’ll be begging us for breadcrumbs’. Sasha and his circle reflect some of the most disenfranchised Russians who readily latch on to official narratives about Russia’s renewal of greatness and the enemy of the West. They are partly the target group for state-controlled televisual framings of the conflict as a proxy for geopolitical victimisation of Russia and her refusal to be ‘bullied’. Putin here is presented as a rational, calculating and honest, if cunning, resistor of Western neo-imperialism. At the same time, when discussing aspects of domestic politics, they are extremely critical of the Russian government and Putin too.

This ‘group’ of informants if I can generalise, are well known for their perpetual ‘political testing’ of foreigners. In the best traditions of official state diplomacy, one possible response from the researcher is polite silence or ambiguous deflections (Blackman 2001). But how realistic is long term ‘field neutrality’ in such circumstances – when the researcher is from a country with a long history of political enmity or mistrust? As during the 1990s NATO intervention in Serbia, the current Ukraine conflict means researchers in Russia are unwillingly interpellated as national representatives – everyday diplomats, if you will.

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my 2014 visit as to a Russian org collecting supplied for refugees from Ukraine conflict. ‘Diplomacy’ needed here as they would only allow entry after quizzing me.

My response to Sasha’s initially aggressive ‘testing’ or posturing on the Ukraine-Russia-sanctions issue was deflective – to avoid a response – silent even. However, as with the Serbian context, this was untenable – a semi-public-facing response had to emerge. This involved politely insisting that things were going to be fine in the UK and that we had our own gas supplies, and so on. Sasha quickly became much more like his usual self and ‘normal’ conversation continued without reference – at least for a while – to the conflict. Nonetheless the conflict had led to a re-interpretation of the researcher and researched as national representatives. Willingly or unwillingly, we had come to embody public diplomacy. Public diplomacy (of which ‘soft power’ is a recent scholarly sub-category) are about building credibility abroad through the display and demonstration of particularistic values and policies (Melissen 2005: 3).  It is also about ‘openness and cooperation’. On the one hand, these diplomatic roles are similar to those normally adopted by the ethnographer: credibility is built with informants, rapport established with a means to an end, but tempered by ethical values that are supposed to be transparent and demonstrable to informants. The paradox of diplomacy therefore extends to ethnography – it is simultaneously means and ends directed activity. Hence the long-standing comparisons of ethnography with espionage and liminality. For ethnographers, like it or not, as for official representatives of a state who reside as aliens in another jurisdiction, ‘trust’ is a necessary by product of activity that has ‘transactional objectives’ (Rose and Wadham-Smith 2004: 34-35). Taking into account the intrusion of geopolitics into field relations, the diplomatic comparison appears equally apt.

Nevertheless, the metaphor breaks down, and in some respects necessarily so. Unlike the diplomat the informant and researcher alike can pursue various tactics not available to the official state representative. Firstly, and importantly, continual deflection through disavowal of the national representing role – ‘I am not a representative of my state’. But this, as indicated above, is not tenable over time as the usual response is: ‘yes, but what do you think about this conflict?’ More powerfully than disavowal is ‘silence’ and continuing ‘civility’ – two modes of indirect communication, both ‘diplomatic’, but equally available to researcher and researched as tools to resist interpellation by politics and open up avenues for alternative interpretation of cultural and national difference in the field. To a degree these responses by the researcher to Sasha’s kind of aggressive discourse are already suggested: what could one say in response? More or less my reaction was civility and silence over time when the topic came up in similar circumstances. For informants, this was also, increasingly, a micro-political response encountered. Silence and civility against the backdrop of international conflict involving people’s respective states is both self-censorship, but also pregnant with affective meaning: the beginning of the mutual acknowledgement of trauma of some kind. ‘Performing the script’ of national representative breaks down in the face of the inadequacy of politics to express the intimacy of field relations and vice versa. A quieter politics inevitably ensues (cf. Askins 2014 on the script performance of refugees, affect and friendship). Silence speaks to acknowledgement of the other in a way that open discussion and argument would not. While new meanings of globalised ‘intimacy’ are currently being calibrated in anthropology, which the accent put on the problem of differentiating ‘authentic’ from purely performative (Sehlikoglu and Zengin 2015: 23), the “‘deep’ knowledge of the field is also a realm of the intimate” (24). transnational intimacies are highly shaped by and embedded in specific social relations of inequality, based on perceived gender, ethnic, racial, national (23).  As Pain and Staeheli suggest, the ‘stretching of intimate spaces’ – of private conversation – to accommodate geopolitical meaning should not verify the political as primary, but acknowledge the geopolitical itself as always already intimate and the multi-scalar (Pain and Staeheli 2014: 345).

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‘Let’s not talk about Ukraine’ – silence is better

‘European’ and ‘Boeing’ metonymy: ‘we are the victims’

Sasha’s use of the word ‘your Europe’ (alternatively given as your ‘West’, when in more combative mood) gives an indication of another group of interactions with informants. The Ukraine Maidan movement is of course associated with the desire for some Ukrainians to join the EU. A number of informants, while avoiding mention of the conflict itself, framed certain seemingly innocuous discussions in terms of the adjective ‘European’: Thus, a certain approach to child rearing, or choice of food, cooking or something else illustrated a ‘European mentality’. In the last couple of decades the adjective European has not been marked in this way in everyday discourse – if anything it is associated with ‘quality’ – the ‘Euro apartment’, ‘Euro food quality’. In this second subset of encounters it is possible to characterise this cultural distancing by informants as a proxy for discussing, or not discussing, the international conflict. Often these same informants had previously been some of the most reflexive about cultural difference and often more critical of their own culture and politics.

A corollary of the ‘European’ approach was when informants with ambiguous or critical viewpoints avoided expressing their disapproval of the Russian government – a very understandable approach – but instead talked about impending ‘punishment’ or catastrophe befalling their country as a result of the ‘Boeing’ (the type of airliner shot down over Ukraine) – note also the metonymic distancing in the use of this word. One woman, Marina, who had relatives in Moscow said: ‘I just hope it is quick. I wake up in the night thinking about a nuclear attack on Moscow. Hopefully they [the relatives] are close to the centre that they will all be killed outright.’ Another said, ‘I suppose we won’t see you again. We will be completely isolated now and they won’t let you come here.’ The ‘they’ were the all-powerful UK government, not the Russians. Externalising feelings of fear and stress to an outside punisher was a common reaction and in some ways inflects the ‘victimhood’ discourses adopted at a state level (Russia as the victim of NATO expansion and Atlanticist encirclement). In a politically highly charged environment, a focus on the reaction of the other, rather than the actions of one’s state was also understandable.

In a follow-up post I will write more about the Ukraine conflict and its effect on my field work, but more importantly, how I see its effects at work on ordinary Russian people.

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 academia.edu 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.

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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.

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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.

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).

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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,

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.

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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.

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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.