Tag Archives: homo soveticus

Infrapolitics, Russian style

making life habitable

The art of making life habitable is only possible through mutuality and reciprocity


In my third post on the topic ‘people as the new oil’ (the two previous posts are here, and here), I make use of James Scott’s ideas of infrapolitics and Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadism to talk more about everyday forms of resistance to the ‘extractive turn’ – the idea now widely discussed, even among elites, that Russians are ‘sponges’ in two senses – to be wrung dry to fill the hole in the country’s finances, and are uniquely capable of absorbing such punishment. After all they are incapable of organising real opposition to hold their leaders to account, and in any case – they can retreat into some kind of dystopian subsistence existence, supplementing poverty wages with their little garden plots, with a ‘grift’ here and there, and a tiny state pension if they can live that long.

Just yesterday, Vladislav Inozemtsev published a long discussion of the completely alien concept, in his view, of the responsive, social security state in Russia. In it he makes very detailed comparisons of how, even in the US, combating poverty is a huge budgetary priority for the government. One point though, stick out for me,  that Russian politics lacks entirely the relationship of obligation to an electorate. As I have written previously, we need to go further and highlight the increasingly open contempt by politicians and elites for ‘ordinary people’. There is an increasing rhetoric of the unworthy poor in Russia. People who can barely feed and clothe themselves are personal failures.

Perhaps it would be inevitable that after the trauma of the collapse of the USSR, a decade of extreme economic and political dislocation, a kind of Social Darwinism would emerge among the winners of post-socialist transformation to help them psychologically cope with their good fortune. They are ‘better people’ because they adapted, and thus those that failed to ‘adapt’, deserve to die off, as a dead end species of post-Homo Soveticus. Perhaps I push this idea too far, but it doesn’t seem too out of place in the light of a ‘serious’ sociological conversation about how ‘Soviet people lacked all moral compass‘.  Homo Soveticus casts the USSR as creating an impoverished moral personhood, cowed by the punitive Stalinist state, distrusting of all but those in one’s inner circle: ‘servile double-thinkers

Thank goodness for people like Greg Yudin (responding here to the questionable methods used to prove that Russians pine for Stalin), and Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, who thoroughly demolishes the rhetoric of Russians as trapped in a totalitarian mindset. The self-justification of the  economic fortunes of the winners of transition are linked to their political ideology – the poor are not only guilty of being poor, they’re also to blame for the failure of democratisation in Russia! As Sharafutdinova continues: ‘Russian intellectuals who disagree with the current political system “other” the Russian masses. Instead of building political bridges and coalitions, intellectuals frequently end up blaming the masses, without whom long-term political change is impossible.’

There is of course reason to agree with one aspect of the ‘Homo Soveticus’ idea – that a violent coercive system has an effect on society (and individuals) long after that system (Stalinism) is consigned to history. Yes, there are aspects of today’s Russia that indicate political and social disconnection, that people expect little but more corruption from the powers-that-be, that they understand the massive brutalising potential of the state (this May Day’s beating of protesters by police emboldened by the new privilege not to have to wear identification is a case in point). But for me it’s the opposite conclusion – not that the Soviet legacy (and authoritarian redux) means that people distrustful or passive, or fearful, but that they respond in an everyday, ordinary rational way to the uncaring, crony-capitalised venal elites. One of the main ideas I put forward throughout my own research is that in the face of an state abdicating social welfare, people more than ‘make do’ by falling back on tried and tested resources, like the garden plot, like close-knit networks of mutual aid. More than that, they will, given time, more than adapt to dysfunctional systems, but start to inhabit the nooks and crannies – making a virtue even, of that dysfunction – hence my long-standing interest in the ‘shadow’ or informal economy. If ‘just coping’ or ‘getting by’ is hiding in a burrow, then more than coping is building a house – inhabiting a space, no matter how inhospitable.

Even the most marginalised and ‘weak’ people are not as passive as they seem. Over the last three decades people have got used to the informal, networked way Russia is governed – capitalism without capitalists, rule without law, power without responsibility. Samuel Greene argues that where people are forced to adapt to the informalized political and economic social relations, they then actually resist the very institution building and formal bureaucratic ways of ‘normal’ functioning states. This paradox can be expressed simply – Russians want more and less state at the same time and this is due to both socialist-era legacies of paternalism and the traumatic post-socialist transition.

It is ironic that privileged observers view ordinary Russians as ‘sponges’, or ‘bydlo’ while daily enjoying the services of informal workers.  Whether it’s nannies or house cleaners, plumbers fixing heating systems, or economic migrants building homes, modest yet cumulatively powerful economic agency is exercised by the vulnerable in escaping the clutches of the extractive state. The informal economy is of course no less exploitative or supportive of inequality, but it indicates the fundamental weakness of the state.

In thinking about the ‘minor warfare’ people wage against the quantifying state, Deleuze called this ‘nomadism’, and it could well describe the mobile tactics and ‘lines of flight’ many ordinary Russians take. Stuck between penury and the extractive state, the only option for many is movement – making use of those ‘weak ties’ to work a hack here and there – siphoning off company fuel for private use, filching some stationary from work, or that oldest forms of nomadism – the informal taxi-driving that supports a million families. Even with increasingly technological ‘fixes’ to stop the informational holes into which millions of people disappear to reappear in informal economic spaces, niches and hacks will arise. For example, while the Russian state cannot yet link up the database of insured drivers to its impressive network of road cameras, at some point this technological issue will be solved. However, there is already a nomadic hack available to every driver, from covering one’s numberplate with transparent shoe polish which ensures a thick layer of dust will immediately adhere (along with numerous other ingenious tricks), to simply using the inefficiencies of the Russian postal system to challenge the legality of the fine. Not to mention a very Russian phenomenon where it’s not uncommon for officials that are tasked with reinforcing the state control to simultaneously advise ordinary people on how to avoid state penalties, out of compassion and solidarity.

A second perspective is to adapt James Scott’s idea of the infrapolitical: ‘the … substratum of those more visible forms of action that attract most scholarly attention’. Scott argues that as “long as we confine our conception of the political to activity that is openly declared, we are driven to conclude that subordinate groups essentially lack a political life” (1990, 199). Many aspects of people’s non-registration of economic activities qualify as the not-quite political. Scott challenges scholarship on dissent to reassess the definition of interventions in the public sphere (we might add, to reassess the idea of the public sphere itself). His contributions include a critique of hegemony and therefore false consciousness, as well as the “safety valve” theory—the notion, for instance, that the patriotic politics around Crimea serve as a distraction from quotidian woes.

Infrapolitics are nurtured by ‘hidden transcripts’. The more the ‘public transcript’ is seen as hypocritical the more it is likely to generate a rich and ‘hidden’ alternative. For example, cynical talk about the importance of the development of human capital and productivity while at the same time hearing that ‘state owes you nothing’, intensifies the creation of counter discourses. Indignities lead to ‘rehearsals’ of injustice and in turn reinforce ‘nomadic’ actions. An enormous wave of memes criticising the pension reforms, sometimes humorously, but often pointedly, are shared through the safety of encrypted messaging services. Two different viral examples illustrate the pointed politicising of the private virtual spaces of dissent. The first is a vlog poem, written and performed by a Urals nurse. Railing against her tiny salary and her inability to adequately feed and nurture her child she asks: ‘Why do you dislike the people so much, they who feed your righteous arses.’ The second is also a video, by a regional Communist deputy, but disseminated anonymously via Whatsapp and other encrypted messaging services. A parody of the presidential New Year’s message he addresses the viewer ‘friends, we have had a difficult year, like many before it. And the problem here is of course not the Western sanctions… not the ‘lazy people’… but the shameless and deceitful authorities’. One possible state response is to try to shut down the most reliable motor of the infrapolitical – the internet. But as with other authoritarian technological fixes, there will always be hacks, and it’s not even clear if firewalling is possible.

The point is not that there is some inflection point where rage converts to rebellion, merely that hidden transcripts reinforce the logic of nomadic, state-distancing moments, like refusing to register as self-employed, like evading a traffic fine, or just having the courage to openly discuss politics for the first time with acquaintances.  Each element gives the other traction. Even though nomadism and infrapolitics work insidiously, they have political significance because they continuously prod at the limits of the publically sayable. While the idea of the state as abstract, distant, and an uncaring entity is ingrained, so is the tactic of nomadism. Recently Vladislav Surkov turned the phrase ‘deep state’ into ‘deep people’ in his eulogy on the greatness of Russia’s system. He might be right about the primacy of the Russian people, but he seems to have forgotten the very Russian saying, ‘still waters run deep’ [в тихом омуте черти водятся].

[a shorter version of this post previously appeared at Ridl.io under the heading ‘People as the New Oil?’  in English https://www.ridl.io/en/people-as-the-new-oil/ and in Russian ]