Tag Archives: Covid

Covid and ‘lay normativity’

medrabotnik slays the covid beast

spotted on a Moscow wall – the medrabotnik slays the covid beast

A major problem in my writing about Russia is trying to communicate the idea of ordinary Russian people as politically sophisticated. Related to that is the attempt to show that most people are more sensitively reflexive to the meaning of language than we give credit for. If given the chance, people show an understanding of the framing of the political – albeit this is almost always dependent on their preconceptions and more or less consistent ideas about the world.

I’ve tried to do that in writing about the Ukraine conflict, and more recently in writing (an unpublished article) about homophobia. The point is not to romanticise what the sociologist Andrew Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’. When I talk to people about Ukraine and about homophobia they more often than not take up the framings presented to them by the media, and in turn the Russian political elite. However, they very quickly move beyond these impoverished framings, and often end up endorsing far more ‘contingent’ (it depends) and often sociological perspectives (that things have complex causes and that judgement might be reserved).

This post is prompted by what Covid shows about the mismatch between what elites expect of most people – based on those elites’ internalisation of narrow and stunted ideas about rational actions of others. This happens because they themselves are (often) utility maximisers, instrumentalist in their dealings with most others, focused on gain and loss materially in their choices, lacking empathy or a wider ‘sociological imagination’ about the places they live. I know people will object to this, but I like to call this ‘living neoliberalism’.

Covid illustrates how elites and particularly their courtier journalists are usually behind the curve and not ahead of it. Thus with typical hubris, we see it too right now in the UK with the ‘lag’ in the response of journalists – cocooned in their WhatApp bubbles. The majority of people self-isolated here before the government advised them too and despite the media/govt attempts to frame the social response to the virus as ‘keep calm and carry on’, otherwise known as ‘let the old and weak die to save our inequitable way of life’.

Now my thinking is focused on the UK because that’s where I’m currently stuck. But this all reminded me of how much I was struck with Andrew Sayer’s work when I first encountered it and how much – in one way or another – it has stuck with me. Sayer is interested in rescuing Bourdieu – allowing for the ‘habitus’ to generate action – particularly for the most insulted an injured in society. Sayer draws attention to how sociology seems to ‘deny the life of the mind in working class’ people. He tries to strike a balance between resistance and compliance by using the term ‘longing’. In doing this he starts developing the idea of lay normativity as a set of discriminative values people have about flourishing and suffering – in a ‘practically-adequate way’. From there he talks about ‘ethical dispositions’ and their potential for activation. I would say we see this quite significantly with a disease mainly affecting the weak and vulnerable – that pretty quickly the balanced favoured a general recognition that one’s own needs were outweighed by the needs of others – however grudgingly and difficult this was to bear (and only made possible thanks to belated financial concessions by a callous government).

What I like about the potential of ‘lay normativity’ is that it both allows for a rationality that escapes rational interest calculations of ‘homo economicus’, AND allows for the kind of ‘moral economy’ approach now current in anthropology that sees people as more than individuals – caught up, for better or worse in chains of sociality as ethical beings. For Sayer this is a double-layered form of interpreting the world – both ‘sociological’ – looking for structural causes, but tempered by normative ethical reasonings that cannot be reduced to habitual action or internalisation of discourses. It’s focused on emancipatory potential within ourselves for sure, but what else should sociology be ‘for’? Sayer comes back at the end of his book to the question of ‘whose normativity’, acknowledging that ethics can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. His attempt around this is to focus on the issues of suffering and flourishing – and that the Foucauldian ‘everything is dangerous’ response to the social is a misguided evasion of the inevitable need for the normative.  He also builds on Nancy Fraser’s perspective that equality means not just redistribution but also recognition as social participants. A lot of the pot banging going on at the moment (the local public vocal displays of support for healthcare workers) reflects a wish for lay normativity to be heard – it’s not just performative virtue.

Anyway, to bring this back to Russia, I just want to share a few of the ways I’ve been influenced by these ideas in my writing. I’m writing about suffering and recognition at the moment for my future book, but now I’ll look back to ways I’ve developed these ideas:

Most recently on homophobia [draft article] I found it useful to problematize a view that homophobia is weaponized in a ‘culture war’ against the West by drawing on how fear of difference reveals more about social trauma, the distrust and loss of the social state and attitudes about ‘moral education’, as it does about the successful inculcation of the idea of the ‘decadent west’.

When I wrote about the meaning of working-class craft in Russia I was very influenced by the idea of recognition and practices involving shared values which escape, more or less, the circuits of commodification, consumption and value  as wage-labour. Here I also used Sayer to prompt me to explore Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘virtue ethics’ – I still think anthropology is really missing a connection to this.

Around the same time I wrote about ‘lay reasoning’ in relation to memory of the socialist past – to show that people had significant mnemonic resources that were not constrained to ‘public memory’ of socialism (good or bad), nor were they nostalgic in the restorative or reflective senses popularised via Boym. They were however, morally normative in that they often activated political thoughts about social justice.

Finally in my book from 2016 I revisited some of the memory materials to explore how those activated reasonings about loss and trauma from the transition period play out – in practical but ethically based actions to further the ideas of autonomy and recognition – if only in the socially local.

Corona in a comparative perspective – will it help ‘restore justice’ in Russia, or show the weaknesses of its incoherent state?


Civil defence placard in a public building.

Okay, so I had the choice when Covid really started kicking off, of being in Russia, Denmark or the UK. I already had a ticket to the UK, so I went there. But it got me thinking a little about comparisons through the lens of the everyday – yeah, you knew it would!

Apologies if, at some point in the future you’re reading this and thinking it’s in bad taste as survivors huddle round a fire in a post-apocalyptic landscape and someone decides to hand crank up the intertubes. Also apologies for the lumpier than usual writing.

So, what’s clear so far is that Britain is a mess in terms of state capacity for dealing with a major crisis, but also a mess in that there is no herd immunity to panic. Bear with me. I’m not of course talking about bio-immunity. I’m talking about the mythic ‘Blitz’ spirit. First of all, the stoic Blitz spirit myth is unhelpful for many reasons: the UK had an Empire, had the US to its flank, had years to prepare for war etc. Mainly though, it’s unhelpful because there wasn’t so much real social solidarity and grass-roots organisation in WWII. What the UK did have was massive and effective state machinery. That machine, well-oiled and relatively successful in socialising (bridling?) capitalism to non-market ends, was the most effective mobiliser and allocator of scarce resources in modern history.

Now, mobilisation and organisation that’s blind to other interests is usually used to describe the USSR war effort. However, what’s more important here is the long-term effect of the trauma of WWII for Russians, and equally, the continuation of ‘wartime’ elements of lived experience after 1945 in Russia.  So one thing that connects this crisis with my research interests is a ‘cosmology of provisioning’. This is the idea that memories abide of ways of being resourceful and resilient in the face of want – witness the culture of pickling and jamming in Eastern Europe generally (there’s even a verbal construction in Russian to describe the physical process of conserving produce at home: «закрывать или закатывать банки» – link from ‘Kapusta TV’!). But it also relates to practical skills of daily living that clearly many have lost – witness the anecdote from the US of a run on pancake mix while eggs and flour were untouched. I’ve seen panic buying in Russia before (the salt and sugar panics from around 15 years ago). So while Russia is certainly prone to conspiracy theories and the virus of rumour, there are socio-cultural elements of making-do and putting-up-with-little that might put them in better stead.

Another topic is what I call the culture of medicalisation in Russia. It’s an irony that the cultural hypochondria, or obsession with avoiding ailments and pursuit of self-treatment (for ailments that British people just put up with) could actually be a helpful thing in Russia. For various reasons, people are much more aware of disease in Russia as an enemy of bodily well-being in a way that seems obsessive to a British person (but not other Europeans or Americans perhaps). Comparing how many people consider having a thermometer essential equipment for their home ‘aptechka’ (note the origin of the Russian word for ‘medicine cabinet’) could be an interesting indicator.

The link here is the Soviet heritage of the scientific approach to disease and the underlying assumption that many barriers to modernisation were rooted in the genetic weakness of the population. Indeed the extreme ‘sensitivity’ in Russia towards ‘infection’ could be a good thing with a potentially higher ‘lay’ understanding of the need for hygiene and quarantine.  Of course, at the same time there is a very healthy (in both senses) folk medicine tradition that shows no signs of abating. The scientism, in a positive sense, behind even everyday practices is a long-standing referent, as Galina Orlova has noted [same article in Russian]. And in general we could point to a more ‘holistic’ understanding of disease causes and treatment in Russian historically.

And that’s not to mention the remnants of civic defence culture that remain – visible in every village administration or public building in the form of posters. Really the question here is, are the well funded and equipped security services able to ‘think’ in terms of civil defence, or are they too preoccupied with a mindset of punishing wrong-doers? Ironically there’s more signs in the UK that the extremely depleted thin blue line can do little more than stigmatise and bully those breaking quarantine, rather than switch to civil defence.  As Vanessa Pupavac notes in response to the UK police ‘shaming’, lessons from studying authoritarian regimes are that ‘overly-heavy handed interpretation of measures in a situation encourages more flouting of measures and the corrosion of adherence, esp. over time, than if reasonable compliance was fostered allowing citizens to make sensible judgement calls.’

Key here is self-organisation and grass roots initiatives. I’m really impressed with what’s happening both in the UK and Russia, with immediate organisation through social media of support and protection for the most vulnerable. Social media is a boon here, but of course many older people don’t have smart phones or internet. In both countries I see examples of self-organised local pooling of human resources to find the vulnerable people and offer support. Here in the UK in my household we phone an elderly widower every day and bring him groceries – observing a safe distance. I know of similar, well organised things in Russia – micro acts of care or ‘quiet activism’, see in particular the work of Kye Askins and  Laura Pottinger.

Both UK and Russian healthcare systems have been decimated by a fetish of ‘leanness’ and cut-to-the-bone medical capacity. Unlike Germany, which looks like being the most successful European society in dealing with the immediate crisis. Similarly, the fiscal policy response in UK and Russia is belated and inadequate, though in Russia especially it looks like a massive policy failure so far. It’s been extremely stingy and tardy: https://meduza.io/en/feature/2020/03/26/bankrolling-russia-s-relief-program and also accompanied with what can only described as sneaky measures (tax on ‘high’ levels of savings described as a ‘restoration of justice’ by Putin) to claw back more money the state doesn’t know what to do with. https://mbk-news.appspot.com/byvaet/vosstanovlenie-spravedlivosti/. The point is that the authorities once again have sent an incoherent message and accompanied it with contradictory measures.

Literally the first discussion of measures I saw on Russian TV, albeit a week ago, was a talking head on RBK predicting that it would be a terrible mistake to raid the massive currency reserves or undertake fiscal measures (because of the effect on the rouble and the depletion of firepower to protect it). The new tax on savings (see MBK link above), while affecting only a few people, has panicked people with much smaller deposits. This morning I got a message from a very calm and collected friend (see end of the post), who had withdrawn all his savings from Sberbank and gone to hole up in his village house. Now RBK is hinting at bank problems. Others I spoke to were disgusted, but not surprised, that the government has no plan to support incomes for those furloughed, unlike in many other European countries.

While there will be profiteering by sociopaths, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/24/world/europe/uk-coronavirus-tests-profiteering.html [paywall] the virus provides an important opportunity to ‘illustrates the centrality of care to social life and the limits of contemporary capitalism’s capacity to enable it’, regardless of what society one lives in. There are signs that society is not completely atomised with half a million people volunteering in serve to the caring state in the UK https://www.goodsamapp.org/NHS. In Moscow vulnerable people can phone to get medicines delivered, but of course, that’s Moscow, not the rest of Russia. It’s unlikely that bodies like the All-Russia People’s Front can really compare in capacity, and capacity to inspire mobilization, with the NHS (the link shows how many cases  they’ve helped among senior citizens and people with reduced mobility during the coronavirus pandemic – it’s tiny). There’s more encouraging news in this article about St Petersburg.

I think the final words should go to Russians themselves. Here are two reactions from today:

“You know, I’m not a fan of the authorities. No. But I wouldn’t just say that they are in a panic or are late. Rather, they are frozen in the headlights in the face of this non-trivial task that is not embedded in their algorithm programs. In Putin’s speech there’s not a single military metaphor, there’s a domestic tone and there’s a general lack of mobilization – just holidays, financial holidays and a few new taxes. Perhaps the refusal to mobilize and use military metaphors, so routine for our country, is a transition to a state of emergency?…” [Muscovite women in 40s]

“So far, it’s only the beginning, all the most interesting will be from Monday. Sentiment in society is not great. The worst thing is that it’s not very clear, is it all for real or is it a bluff. Small and medium-sized businesses will definitely be killed … A doctor I know said that it will be like in Italy, but in 2-3 weeks. Bu the main thing is there’s no leadership, no support – neither in terms of money or getting the healthservice ready. My father is in hospital now with underlying conditions and the doctors have no masks.

… People will continue to take money from accounts, banks can collapse. Gref this morning sent letters to everyone but it’s too late to say ‘chill’…. I advised everyone to take all my money from even Sberbank. There are rumours that cash circulation will be limted, that they will forbid withdrawals from ATMs.  Also that currency exchanges will be closed.” [Man in Kaluga region in 40s]


I’ve just been sent this report from PONARS [pdf opens in a new window] on the way the virus is being tackled in different post-Soviet states. It nicely underlines my idea about an incoherent state response on the part of Russia.