A while ago I linked to some articles about the post-modern aspects of Russian politics and how in many ways would-be non-conformists have been co-opted by the establishment.
There was Peter Pomerantsev’s defense of artiste Serebrennikov‘s interpretation of Almost Zero, the play based on the work of Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov, and Vadim Nikitin’s statement that “if bankers can attend Occupy Wall Street rallies on their lunch breaks, why can’t ‘Moscow’s top gallery-owner advise the Kremlin on propaganda at the same time as exhibiting anti-Kremlin work in his gallery’”?
Bringing up the Occupy Wall Street movement raises an interesting question. Much has been theorized about the origins of the Occupy movement, but little has been done to frame the “anti-capitalism protests” (in the Economist‘s view) against the experience of formerly ‘anti-capitalist’ polities, such as the old Soviet Union, and Russia in particular.
Suffice to say, I do not think I agree with Slavoj Zizek, who believes that sweeping changes are underfoot because “the system has failed to remain self-evident.” In his view, the ‘system’ (neoliberalism?) is the illness, and inequality and injustice are just the symptoms.
Instead, in explaining the backlash against perceived systemic inequality, I think that I agree most with the theory of elite capture – of financial as well as political institutions – seen in its conceptual form in Naidu, in its historical context in Packer, and in its mechanical detail in Taibbi.
If we think about Occupy movements in terms of elite capture, we run into some trouble when we shift to Russia.
The futility, and even hypocrisy, of protesting alongside ‘bankers on their lunch break’, is why, despite the size of OWS, Keith Gessen says that in Russia, on the other hand, “[protests] always felt different” (even when futile or even not worthwhile), because you were standing up to a very present adversary in the police. The police in Russia are very much the custodians of an establishment they feel loyal to or on whose corrupt core they are forced to feed.
American police, for all their shortcomings, have no such overt connection to elites. The police in the US are part of the 99% and are not the real adversary of the Occupy movements, which are obsessed with income inequality.
In Russia, income inequality is a given.
In Russia, the recent protest that had the largest impact was in December 2010, when soccer hooligans incited racial violence in Manezh square. As Gessen writes, “they massively outnumbered the police: that the they did not overpower them merely showed that they did not want to. If they’d wanted to take the Kremlin that night, they probably could have.” These riots were driven by baser motives and perceived injustices – race, fanaticism – and while the root causes may have been within the realm of political economy (unemployment, lack of integration), these riots were, at heart, apolitical in nature, especially in Slavoj Zizek’s sense of the word.
In Russia, elite capture – of political, financial, and industrial institutions – is a given, and while going at it with the police is still viscerally intense over there, the elites are so far removed that the violence is rendered moot to them.
I would even go so far as to wonder if the persistence of elite capture after the dissolution of the USSR and the continuation of a largely classless society are actually inherent features of post-communism. In Russia, we are still waiting for the voice of the middle class to emerge.
In these neo-liberal systems, on the other hand, class is very much at the forefront of political discourse, and here I offer a warning as well as a trip down memory lane.
‘Class’ and ‘class warfare’ are being used every which way to push various agendas, whether were talking about the 1%, the 53%, the 99%, or whatever; so much so that class – although very real in America – has almost become an empty signifier in politics at this time.
In 1969, Hungarian director Basco Peter made a film, “The Witness”, that was a ridiculous satire of the Rakosi regime. In the film, humble dike-keeper Pelikan is essentially blackmailed into becoming a political cipher. Serving the communist party in various forms, including at an Orange Research Facility that literally produces lemons, Pelikan’s forced political activity culminates when he is involuntarily compelled to serve as a witness at a show trial. Any time he asks his puppetmaster for ideological justification of these acts, he is simply told:
a nemzetközi helyzet fokozódik
which translates as “the international situation is intensifying.”
This platitude can be invoked to rationalize anything.
In the scene below, Pelikan’s puppetmaster, Comrade Virag, is eating potatoes with Pelikan’s family when he accuses Pelikan of sheltering a disgraced Party member.
Driving his point home, Virag says, “The potato reminds me of something, doesn’t the word ‘potato’ ring a bell? … Doesn’t it stir meaning? Look, whether eating pork or potatoes, az osztályharc egyre fokozódik” [‘The class struggle is intensifying’]
As an old friend once said, you don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that the problems Marx identified are real.
Links to articles below: