Tag Archives: Scott

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 ]

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.


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.