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Russia as vanguard: Authoritarian neoliberalism and surveillance capitalism

This article takes up the problem of Russian neoliberalism – how to understand the relationship between the social state and neoliberal economic reforms/governmentality (which often seem contradictory). In turn, this relationship tells us about the alignment of state, digital governance, and capital interests in Russia. Based on long term ethnographic participant observation, my research has looked at ‘work’ broadly defined and in particular the case of SEZs (Special Economic Zones) and their roles in the surveillence of work and the (re)moulding of labouring persons. 

SEZs are areas where business and trade laws differ from the rest of a country and are particularly common in countries looking to entice inward investment as a form of developmental policy. The classic example is Deng Xiaoping’s Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in 1979. In critical scholarship SEZs are often seen as key sites of accumulation by dispossession. Special Economic Zones (SEZs) have interested me for a long time because so many of my research participants moved directly from formerly Soviet factories to shiny new Japanese, Korean, and European intensive productionscapes in the 2000s and 2010s. I write a little bit about this in my book, but it’s only recently that I’ve tried to triangulate my ideas with the literature on SEZs. 

SEZs (and the related geographical-juridical space of Industrial Parks) — were created supposedly to kick start diversification and higher-tech production — in reality they serve primarily as accelerated laboratories in deregulation, offering lower corporate taxes, more liberal juridical regulations, ease of transnational movement of goods, and lean sweated labour regimes (on the latter see [Morris and Hinz 2017]).

SEZs’ success has been in socializing blue-collar locals in accepting downgraded labour terms and conditions and training white-collar workers in more effective coercive surveillance-managerialist methods. In terms of transnational state-capital collaboration to increase productivity, global connectivity (notably with the Silk Road rail system), and in providing a relatively low-tech domestic manufacturing base, SEZs are an outstanding success. For a site selling the benefits of SEZs in Russia see this link.

My main argument (in more detail ) is that these effects are not contained by the zonal boundary — they ‘scale’ via further expansion of ‘lean’ enterprises beyond the zone, as transnational corporate infrastructure and human capital investment has an effect on the whole region. Indeed, the ‘zone’ is not a spatially contained territory, but an elastic administrative state of exception that has expanded throughout the region to encompass many clusters containing dozens of diverse foreign and domestic firms in urban, brownfield and greenfield sites. In terms of ‘register’ too, the SEZs exercise a strong discursive effect, making new working relations ‘common sense’ beyond the zones themselves, affecting local politicians, employers and workers in other enterprises. Overall, the ‘register’ effect multiplier is more important than any administrative-legal deregulation and should be seen as part of neoliberal scaling itself. Patrick Neveling, writing on India, analyzes examples of similar zones a bit differently, as “exemplary for the structured contingencies in global capitalism as these neoliberal regimes were established long before neoliberalism became the defining ideology in global policymaking under the Washington Consensus.” In the Russian case, SEZs are a very recent phenomenon, and their success in ‘register’ and ‘scaling’ is somewhat in contrast to what we think of as typically more dirigiste movements. My point is that a strong (neo)liberal strain remains, regardless of what happens at the top of Russian economic policy. This story also should make us hesitate about too quickly assuming further decoupling of Russia from the global economy. 

The Alabuga Special Economic Zone: FordSollers. Source: Wikimedia commons

My prior research has documented the ‘burn through’ of the local labour force by the new SEZ companies, and the devil’s bargain facing blue-collar Russians in particular. In the face of societal opposition, libertarian market ideologues need to naturalize what is in fact a carefully constructed view of human economies in a set of epistemological precepts that serve politics [Mirowksi 2019]. SEZs in the European Russian context beyond big cities are important in drawing in new labour to discipline and socialize. As I was doing my long-term fieldwork in 2010, a remarkable divide opened up before my eyes between those – mainly young men and women who embraced the SEZ work and went on to get mortgages and foreign cars, and those who ‘rejected’ it in favour of the precarious informal economy and decaying paternalism of the old factories. However, it’s not so simple. Over the longer term, regardless of how well people internalize neoliberalism, expectations of a social contract, or at least enterprise paternalism don’t completely disappear. Similarly, it’s ironic that the ‘entrepreneurial’ possibilities of the informal economy (as an electrician, welder, builder, trader, etc) actual serve as a limit on the diffusion of ‘neoliberal governmentality’ that I describe indirectly in . Maybe Hillel Ticktin had a point after all, when he proposed that the reality of the pace of work being dictated by the shopfloor itself was an enduring and profound characteristic of the USSR and an impediment to the transition to fully commodified labour. The ‘escape’ to the informal economy often looks like a way to try to retain that ‘autonomy’ in some form. 

The Alabuga Special Economic Zone. Source: Wikimedia commons

Another finding from my work that is as true today as 10 years ago is that many workers who ‘fail’ in the SEZs, more often end up in the ranks of lumpen, surplus populations undertaking everyday ‘microproletarian economies’ (Gago 2017:19). In this sense, the most marginal part of the Russian population takes on the task of maintaining the dynamism of what Verónica Gago has called ‘neoliberalism from below’.  There may be a space within this dynamic to resist exploitation and dispossession but this itself becomes a ‘foundation for an intensification of that exploitation and dispossession’ (Gago 2017: 11). In the Russian context we can see diverse examples of this is self-exploitation in the informal economy that entail entrepreneurial dynamics and seemingly provide autonomy, but which are extremely precarious livelihoods where the risk of poverty, violence and exploitation are high. Informal mushroom collectors who sell to wholesalers, open market stall ‘owners’, informal garage mechanics, day labourers, construction workers and taxi-drivers. 

Anastasiya Ovsyannikova (2016) criticizes Ilya Matveev for using the term neoliberalism to describe Russia in part because she believes the social state trumps any deregulatory momentum. She cites labour protections and (from the perspective of 2016) lack of pension reform as examples. However, empirical evidence shows that employment protection in Russia is ‘poorly observed’ (Gimpelson et al. 2010) to put it mildly. Pension reform did go ahead, despite enormous opposition, and prior commitments to indexation were diluted to the point that in the future it is likely that its universal element will be replaced by means-testing. Ovsyannikova argues that ‘monetisation of welfare benefits’ was overdue because of underfunding and piecemeal execution.  However, she ignores how monetisation closely matches patterns of welfare residualization elsewhere which are key to the austerity politics of international institutions (see Wengle and Rasell 2008: 749). Monetisation also entails ‘choosing’ deserving groups and making them ‘responsible’ citizens (Kourachanis 2020). 

As  notes in the Polish case, family-focussed welfare reform can act as a form of ‘neoliberal social innovation’ by appropriating the micro-scale of social reproduction as a further space of responsibilization (of benefits linked to parenthood, upbringing, domestic work) and privatization (of former entitlements such as pre-school childcare). In addition, the diffusion through welfare states of conditionality is a key plank in neoliberal reform because it realises a critique of social rights on both a discursive and structural level (Pieterse 2003, in Bindman 2017). Eleanor Bindman also reminds us of the genealogy of responsibilization in social policy stretching back to Soviet ideas around welfare provision. Julie Hemment (2009) points out that in the Russian case rhetorical concessions to a social state are not matched by policy – if anything, they serve as a cover for accelerating change. Even a generous interpretation of the remnants of the social state reveals extreme conditionality, narrow and patchy coverage, and tokenistic, piecemeal provision in cases of extreme social distress. 

The retreat of the social state is nothing new and not peculiar to post-socialist states. However, as the thesis of authoritarian neoliberalism proposes, during periods of crisis contingent necessity results in incoherence or heterogeneity of the state bureaucratic function. This merely underlines its punitive or delegative relations to the individual. The state’s response to Covid-19 in Russia and its similarities and differences to core states are instructive. First, a knee-jerk authoritarian lock-down followed by a hurry to delegate responsibility back to the individual and downplay both the social costs and state responsibility. Russia, like other neoliberal developed economies, offered very limited income support for livelihoods, especially among the self-employed and poor. This affected not only lumpenized informal workers like taxi-drivers and construction workers, but also the burgeoning ‘freelancer’-precariat white-collar workers – an important category in Russia, as elsewhere where there is high ‘human capital’ but structural barriers to small and medium-size businesses beyond micro-entrepreneurialism. As Andrey Shevchuk (2020) points out – labour processes negotiated via digital platforms in the gig economy emphasise tight algorithmic control and a loss of autonomy because the platforms actually disguise incorporation of workers into ‘shadow’ corporations. This also divides labour into small parcels which has a wider influence via spillover into other domains of work. For the purposes of our argument, work for ‘shadow corporations’ intensifies both punitive monitoring and self-exploitation at the point of production.

Covid-19 only accelerates this aspect of neoliberal authoritarian monitoring; digital transformation enables a ‘control society’, long predicted by Gilles Deleuze (1990). Alone among European nations, in early 2020, Moscow’s government pioneered a technological system of surveillance quarantine (Orlova and Morris 2021).  While ultimately unsuccessful, and quickly giving way to broader (neoliberal) pressures to re-open the economy regardless of public health risks, the Moscow experiment illustrated the tendency of control to shift from a focus on the disciplined, directly observed body, to a new order of domination. Personal data processing as a semi-autonomous system entails both the deactivation of agency and its reactivation through incorporation of the person in their own data flows (where choices about what images we view online and what products we buy are then fed back to us to reinforce existing behaviour). 

Of course, digital governance a priori assumes a set of political values to be ‘inputted’ into any algorithm which can then make judgements of value as to the conduct and movement of real individuals, just as the data attached to persons themselves can become another ‘fictitious commodity’ to further marketize social domains that previously resisted incorporation (Haggart 2018). The term ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff 2015) is often focussed on individual privacy rights, and monopoly capitalism in general, rather than the implications of data commodification for individual behaviours observable via the everyday political economy, hence my preference for the broader term authoritarian neoliberalism to describe Russian political economy. 

The nascent Russian ‘control society’ (which will possibly develop along the lines of the Chinese ‘social credit’ system) illustrates the potential further reinforcement of self-monitoring and inscription in one’s micro-social actions of neoliberal logics. Moscow serves as a suitable test bed for the further expansion of such technologically integrated systems of governmentality in the ‘democratic’ countries – for example Face Pay is being enthusiastically rolled out in the metro. Micropayment systems via phone are almost more obligatory among the immigrant and marginal populations than among the Moscow middle-class. I could entertain with a long anecdote of how a few weeks ago I tried in vain to pay in cash for a long taxi ride (five thousand rubles, or around £50). The Kyrgyz driver really didn’t want the cash because it was it was easier to store and transfer value electronically, including for facilitation of remittances… in the end I had to give the cash to an acquaintance who then transferred money to my driver, Rakhimon. 

When conceptualizing/understanding neoliberalism, what we often miss sight of is the mutual benefit for states and corporations, including state-owned enterprises.  The control society brings further pressures to conform or internalize behaviours, practices and mindsets that entrench neoliberal thinking and allow the biopolitical to undermine any alternative ‘mechanisms of accounting’ (Hardt and Negri 2004: 148). Local researchers like David Hurma are right at the heart of Russian sociological research that opens up this contradiction – we are supposed to internalize discipline, but this goes hand in hand with increased surveillance of work processes. This conjunction of state and capital power can be observed everywhere, but I want to end with two further brief examples of Russia as ‘vanguard’. 

Russia offers an example of the broad and deep roll-out of the surveillance state due to its experience since the 2000s of aligned state and capital interests in extracting economic rents from populations. In just the most obvious example, the peppering of public (and increasingly private) highways with revenue-generating traffic enforcement cameras should be seen for what it is: an authoritarian technical solution to overcome limits on rent-seeking elsewhere. The plethora of these cameras puts almost every other developed country’s effort to shame. Truly, in linking the control society to rent-seeking it is as pure as public-private partnership goes. A part of the proceeds goes to regional budgets, but the ‘take’ from private companies supporting the cameras’ operation is 15-times greater than their real cost.

And of course, in case there’s any doubt, petty corruption by police does not end because of the camerification of roads, it just metastasizes into preying on goods vehicles and taxi-drivers instead of ‘ordinary’ motorists who are caught by the cameras alone. As a driver, I pay around 3-4 fines a year for road infractions that are almost impossible to avoid in Moscow. As a passenger, I personally saw three bribes extorted from taxi drivers in just a dozen trips last month. 

To move to a different scale – that of the individual, a similar process can be observed in the microproletarianization of workers such as food couriers and taxi-drivers. They, as elsewhere, are subject to algorithmic control for maximum extraction of surplus value. This happens of their own ‘volition’, via internalization of the demands of maximal self-exploitation and the delegation of all externalities to the individual and wider society (health costs, accidents, insurance, pollution) by the platforms themselves. However, here again we observe the imbrication of state (which owns shares in such companies, allows them to operate as quasi-monopolies, and sustains anti-labour legal environments) and financial and political elites who own such companies. The scaling effect of microproletarianization of swathes of economic activity in Russia via concentration of market share is unprecedented outside of China. 

In conclusion, we should view Russia as just another ‘normal’ country, just not in the optimistic sense Daniel Treisman and Andrei Shleifer (2005) predicted: a middle-income country facing typical developmental challenges. Instead, I would contend that Russia is ‘normal’ in ways that reflect its peripheral-as-vanguard authoritarian neoliberalism. Its characteristics are the dominant politics of “austerity” (the phobia of fiscal expansion, a continuously residualizing social state) accompanied by the other disciplining factor of real incomes falling over protracted time periods;  limited social mobility and the privatizing of educational opportunity leading to a small plutocratic class or caste; the expansion of indebtedness and precarity in the population; social reproduction as largely responsibilized and privatized; the expansion of the horizons of the rentier alliance between state and capital interests and a modest cementing of multinational corporations’ clout and the intensification of their role in the economy (a process actually accelerated by sanctions; see Gurkov and Saidov 2017). All watched over by the nascent digital control society.

Doug Rogers in his book The Depths of Oil (2016) cautions against ‘uniting things under the theoretical sign of the “neoliberal”’, but at the same time agrees with the need for a more serious ethnographic examination of how flexible labour regimes, SOEs and the neo-authoritarian state are linked. As I argue here these linkages intensify the politics of resignation on the part of ordinary people, at the same time as they are further incorporated into neoliberal (self)governmentality. The only limits on incorporation are certain incoherences of the state-capital accommodation-assemblage. As Rogers (2016) noted in his study of the oil and gas industry in the Urals, capitalist ‘incorporation’ via privatisation after communism does not necessarily mean coherence or coordination in governance and corporate identity. In addition, the term ‘incoherence’ is distinct from ‘hybrid assemblages’ (Ong 2006) or ‘parasitical co-presences’ (Peck 2004). ‘Deregulatory’ governance (in the sense that it lacks finality or fixity) inevitably and often unintentionally opens up holes in the fabric of economic and social relations. 

Emergent practices both reinforce but also undermine economistic and bureaucratic rationality (Molyarenko 2016, Morris 2019) in what Ananya Roy (2009: 80) calls ‘law as social process’. Conjuncturally, Russia is notable for the continuing expansion of the informal economy in tension with state and capital surveillance – even though, as I have argued before, informality entails in part internalisation of neoliberal governmentality (Morris 2019). As a space for autonomism, the potential for non-market oriented exchange and labour is limited. Nonetheless for imagining non-capitalist alternatives, Russia’s sheer size means informality is important. Informality in Russia should be seen as offering similar counter-hegemonic potential as that of models that derive from ‘deregulated’ and informal systems from below in other global contexts – such as horizontalism (Sitrin 2012), baroque economics (Gago 2017), and ‘insurgent’ citizenship practices (Holston 2009). These are beyond the scope of my essay, but deserve equal attention in any approach that proposes an everyday political economy with a view to uncovering space for the emergence of ‘commons’ beyond state and market (Caffentzis and Federici 2014, Fournier 2013).

Jeremy Morris is Professor of Global Studies at Aarhus University, Denmark. His books include Everyday Postsocialism: Working-class communities in the Russian Margins (Palgrave, 2016); as co-editor: New Media in New Eurasia (Routledge 2015); The Informal Postsocialist Economy: Embedded Practices and Livelihoods (Routledge 2014). This is an essay based on a series of posts from the blog and a longer article. Twitter: @russophiliac