Tag Archives: Scott

Challenging the view that Russians are ‘passive’.

uncollected rubbish

uncollected rubbish from a designated municipal site.

 

In a previous post I talked about the phrase: ‘people are Russia’s replacement oil’ as representing a new extractive shift to harvesting economic rents in more intensively from ordinary people. In this post I want to talk about liberal pundits’ interpretation of this turn of events. A much truncated version of what I wrote below was part of a short piece for Ridl.io

But before that just a quick recap on the reality of ‘making ends meet’ for many Russians that I talked about previously. Ordinary people are suffering from a decade-long decline in their living standards putting them in a position of extreme want. Published average incomes may look survivable, but the reality is that, like in other unequal countries, such statistics are misleading not least because of the distorting effect of a small number of very high incomes. In 2018 average gross wages were 40000 rubles a month or $560. Whether this figure is fiddled or not, in any case it ignores the large effect of lower informal (undeclared) incomes, and the imbalance between big city state company employment and the rest.  Independent polling indicates that the ‘real’ average pay was less than 20000 rubles ($305). $300 is not even a subsistence wage. Even adding to it a lower secondary wage, a family is left virtually nothing for clothing, medicines, travel or spending on children. When trying to measure relative poverty a robust measure is how much a family spends on food and other essentials. The open acknowledgement of the extreme poverty in which many Russians life can be seen in political events like the strange passing of a law allowing Russians to collect fallen trees, ‘for their own needs’.

Influential independent political observers like Valerii Solovei and Vladislav Inozemtsev draw pessimistic conclusions about the ‘extractive turn’. Mostly they view their fellow citizens as passive and lacking any agency, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – the massive informal economy that sustains livelihoods and habitability above the bare subsistence level and is seriously disruptive to the state. Solovei paints a vivid picture of Russians as passive sponges to be wrung dry in any way possible by an emboldened state – where can people hide from taxes on fuel and cigarettes? (I guess you can anticipate my answer to him – in both cases it’s in the interstices of the informal economy). To be fair to him, he at least strikes a warning note: history shows that eventually people get fed up and social strife is the result. However, his remedy is predictably unimaginative, a bourgeois democratic revolution (without any messy involvement of ordinary people) such as what ‘could have been’ in 2011-12. But how realistic is political change without the engagement of people beyond metropolises? And how would a bourgeois democracy he envisage address the enormous structural inequalities and imbalances Russia faces? Doesn’t this approach just reproduce a ‘two Russias’ perspective so criticized by other observers such as Ilya Matveev? We can see traces of this stigmatizing perspective everywhere: the assumption that a ‘lack of culture’ or an ‘authoritarian personality’ prevents the ‘other’ Russians from seeing the light. On the latter, Carine Clement has recently taken this idea to task. In particular, she rejects the ‘mythical apoliticism of Russians’ and asks the question – if Russians’ ‘authoritarian’ thinking includes a strong element of critique of the existing social order, then to what degree is it really authoritarian?

Inozemstev’s approach is more interesting. He starts with the notion of popular disenchantment and elite indifference, but then links this to a more general pessimism.  Noting that the ‘new oil’ trope indicates people have awareness of how costly the elites are to them he despairs that ‘the authorities realise quite how broken the Russian population’s willingness to resist really is, from mass protests to even small-scale acts of dissent.’ Does this view make the mistake that only ‘open’ protest is a mark of resistance? Elsewhere Inozemstev actually hints at what is in plain sight: the informal economy as a bulwark against complete penury for many. He notes that even the Russian government openly acknowledges that 38 million people’s work and income is opaque at best to the state. I agree with him that most Russians want to hold down a legitimate employment in the formal economy. However, given such pessimism, even this is increasingly questioned by some of the already most vulnerable. The qualifying period for an old age pension will soon increase from 6 to 15 years, the social rights that accrue to a formally employed person are losing their value due to the erosion of the health system in general.  All in all Inozemstev proposes some incremental reforms that can be characterised as too little too late (tax free allowances on low incomes, assistance schemes like food stamps), which are regressive (increasing VAT) or even defeatist (corruption should be limited to the resource sector). Overall it looks like a kind a pale Fabianism with little scope for taking root.

In his latest piece Inozemstev is closer to some of the points I make in my previous post – detailing what the increasing in indirect taxation will mean to ordinary people – a real rise of around 10% in petrol costs and the real fall in incomes since 2008. Interestingly, given the ongoing ‘rubbish disposal’ protests, he points to the very large increase in household bills for waste disposal. This increase – a doubling has not gone unnoticed by ordinary people and they are up in arms about it – especially in places like the town I study which has been repeatedly the victim of fly-tipping of Moscow rubbish and which recently saw its head of the council’s environmental services jailed for taking bribes to allow such tipping.

Ekaterina Shulman uses the questionable assumptions and methodology of the World Values Survey data to address the topic of ‘turning the screws’ on ordinary people. She first argues that a shift in Russian values from ‘superatomisation’ characteristic of the 1990s to ‘conservative’ is somewhat positive as it facilitates collective action and sociality. A notable effect is the strengthening of weak ties and broadening of the scale of interpersonal trust especially among the young and dynamic. On the other hand, she sees in Russia the continuing legacy of totalitarianism: ‘secular, atomised society’ that produces the lonely distrustful individual with atrophied social skills.  Homo soveticus is very much still with us in her view. Consequently, she greets the shift in public opinion from ‘political security’ to ‘social security’ with some surprise (in reality this aspect of public opinion has always been there).

The beef I have with approaches like these is that the ordinary Russians who daily make decisions about how to live are presented as an undifferentiated mass – suffering from ‘learned helplessness’ (a phrase used by Ekaterina Shulman but also by Carine Clement) or as an unruly source of social unrest – the word ‘revolt’ (bunt) is reserved for them. At worst this ‘by-the-numbers’ approach gives the impression that ‘we’, the addressed middle-class audience of these pundits, should fear the ‘other’ Russia.  Solutions presented ring hollow – they are either a form of gradualism or legalism (vote, even if the field is rigged; use your right to agitate against a bad candidate; if only we just adhered to the Constitution; wait for those nostalgic old people to die). In my final post on this topic, I’ll make use of James Scott’s ideas of infrapolitics to talk more about everyday forms of resistance to the extractive turn.

 

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What makes a Russian (or Chinese) middle-class?

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

The discreet charm of the late-Soviet petite bourgeoisie, or rather the ‘protected’ technical managerial class, as seen in the film ‘Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears’.

This autumn I was asked by colleagues to discuss a panel of papers on Class formation in Russia at the BASEES Uppsala conference, Regimes and Societies in Conflict: Eastern Europe and Russia since 1956.

The three papers were Markku Kivinen, ‘Specificities of Middle-class Structuration in Russia’; Mikhail Chernysh, ‘The structure of the Russian middle class’, and Harri Melin, ‘Working life and the myth of precariat in Russia’.

All the papers are part of a book project. I’ll try to summarise them in turn, starting with Markku Kivinen.

Kivinen sees a lack of clearly identifiable class interests in Russia, and therefore a commensurate lack of class-based action or agency. Interestingly, he takes his discussion back to the very idea of what we mean when we talk about a ‘bourgeoisie’: “After more than 60 years, entrepreneurial groups have been revived with the process of privatization. The discussion here focuses on the middle class which in the West is traditionally known as the new middle class (managerial and profes­sio­nal groups), but which in Russia is ‘old’ in the sense that it has inherited its locations from the Soviet era”, writes Kivinen. Suspicious of bare structural accounts, Kivinen argues for class ‘situation’ as well as ‘structure’. This entails some kind of shared rationality or consciousness. From here Kivinen observes that in Russia there is still only a small middle-class in terms of professional wage earners and that corresponding professional organisations are weak. So for him such a class lacks the ‘autonomy’ of a middle class in the West.

Kivinen hypothesises that micro politics of labour control have grown during transition. Given that in the past the ‘inheritance’ of economic resources was insignificant (i.e. even among the elite there was an unwritten rule about limiting the ‘leg up’ effect, and the material intergenerational transmission of resources was not widespread), today, in contrast to economic differences, cultural distinctions of class probably remain important.

Here I’m not sure I completely agree with Kivinen. Part of the ideological breakdown of consensus in the late Soviet period entailed the scramble for position, and the re-writing of those rules to enable the more savvy, including lower level insiders, to position themselves and their kids. To give an example, a 40-year-old Muscovite woman I know has never required a waged income because her parents (1980s Komsomol functionaries) were able to leverage Soviet structural position (partiinye posty) into post-Soviet position (state-org functionaries), then use the access to those state resources to accumulate capital (a private business run through the ‘front’ of a state job and resources) and then in turn into property assets. Now this family has a modest portfolio of flats rented out, allowing a significant consumption lifestyle without requiring anyone in the family to have a meaningful wage income. However, culturally, I don’t see any particular difference between this family and their working-poor neighbours. Both aspired to own a Mitsubishi Lancer and some questionable American kitchen interior design in the late naughties, and that was about it. The working-poor had to get credit for it. The ex-Komsomol bought for cash.

Combining class analysis with the sociology of work, Kivinen proposes a relationship between professional autonomy and mental labour in defining middle-classness.  This is in distinction to his view of working-classes who are always alienated due to a lack of autonomy (control over processes and planning). Then Kivinen engages with Gil Eyal, Ivan Szelenyi and Eleanor Townsley, particularly on the different forms of capitalism that emerged in Eastern Europe (more cautious diffused institutional capitalism without ‘capitalists’), versus Russian nomenklatura take-over of resources (capitalists without capitalism – see my ‘petty bourgeoisie’ example above), and ‘entrepreneurial’ capitalism from below in China. Based on survey data, Kivinen concludes that there has been a major expansion in absolute terms of the middle class (from less than 40 percent in 1998 to now over 50 percent). From the data presented in the paper, it’s not clear what definition is being used of entry to the middle class (I am sure in the book it will be well covered). Interestingly, one aspect Kivinen links to this rise is the continuing propensity of all Russians to change their jobs frequently, known as ‘churn’, and something I’ve written about. Likewise, I’ve written a lot about autonomy among working-class people. (See the discussion from p. 72 in particular). The desire for autonomy cuts across classes, and niches are carved out in the most unlikely places.

Overall, my gut response is that a ‘counting’ approach to class remains problematic and perhaps even counter-productive (excuse pun). I’m sure Kivinen’s figures are robust, but how meaningful is it to say 50% of Russians are middle-class when certainly average disposable incomes, however counted, are tiny in comparison even to other middle-income countries? We will see this criticism repeated in my reading of the other papers.

But here I’ll end with a heuristic example: The average wage in Russia is, after tax, around 34,000 Roubles. That’s barely 500 USD. The same article linked to here is a good treatment, acknowledging that in Moscow the average wage probably is around 500 USD (but anyone aspiring to have any quality of life there on that wage would be extremely depressed by reality). In addition, the article notes that wages have fallen in real terms for the last 10 years! Outside the big cities (only 30 million inhabitants out of 145m) the ‘real’ average is likely to be around only 20,000 Roubles elsewhere. See here for a similar enumeration. This all chimes exactly with my ‘anecdotal’ research experience – most of my research participants struggle to make more than 20,000 Roubles. And remember this is among economically active people (less than 50% of the population) with full-time wages (a much smaller fraction).

Yes, a household on two average (20k) incomes, with no housing costs, can live better than the urban poor and pensioners, but that’s less than 50% of the population. The 34k income bracket is, for want of a better phrase, ‘upper-middle class’, or ‘affluent’ and seen as anomalous by most of those I research.  More importantly, even this putative middle group is going to severely struggle with unexpected bills, even running an old Russian car will be a stretch. Frequently they will resort to pay-day loans (there’s plenty of evidence of this in my research). Cognitively, they will not be inhabiting the mindset of any middle-class you can imagine. And that’s different from aspiring to own a jeep, go to Cyprus, or own a second home. An instructive comparison can be made with the ‘struggling middle’ in China at the moment (urban dwellers with middle-class aspirations) who on average earn around the same as the real average in Russia ( 3,000 yuan, or 480 USD a month). However, unlike in Russia, meaningful consumption is possible on this income (discretionary spending), including on taxi rides to work, investment in stocks, luxury imports (gourmet cat food!).

And to finish with a thought about autonomy. James Scott, interestingly, also links middle-classness (or rather the classical petite bourgeoisie subsection of it) to autonomy in his book Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. Like my former Komsomol leaders, many people in history have aspired to become small property owners due to the perception that this confers autonomy (and social standing). Scott argues that the petite bourgeoisie play a role in the development of a modern capitalism that is socially tolerable in that important social and civil functions are delegated to them (land stewardship, public safety, public action). On the other hand a more conventional leftist tradition would see in ‘middle-classness’ only the reactionary, whether cultural or social. One can see the short distance from here to the debates about civil society in Russia. However, so far I remain to be convinced both in economic and social terms about the meaningfulness of talking about a Russian middle-class.