Chto Delat in London/Alexei Penzei: “Under Suspicion”

First, an important announcement:

Dmitry Vilensky & Alexei Penzin from Chto Delat/What Is to Be Done?
Lecture: Tuesday, December 1st at 6.00 pm
Small Hall / Cinema (to the side of Loafers)
Richard Hoggart Building
Goldsmiths College, New Cross, London SE14 6NW

Organised by Marxism in Culture and the Micropolitics Research Group, Goldsmiths, and supported by the Open University.

Second, to give Londoners a taste of what they might be hearing at the December 1 lecture, we are reprinting here Alexei Penzin’s essay “Under Suspicion,” from a recent issue of our newspaper entitled Another Commons: Living/Knowledge/Action. Sadly, what Alexei wrote this past summer has only gained in relevance and timeliness since then.

Alexei Penzin: Under Suspicion

When we peruse the timeline of the “merry month of May” 2009 in Russia—a laconic chronicle of arrests, detentions of activists, intellectuals and artists, but also of protests against these actions of the authorities—many difficult questions arise. Of course, the fragmentary and brief comments given below do not claim to be a definitive diagnosis. The incomplete and sketchy quality of these comments is rather a part of the problem itself. A fuller analysis will be possible when there is a systematic understanding of the post-Soviet political experience, which for now is a thing of the future. 

1. In medias res

It is very difficult to understand what is going on in medias res, from the inside: these are events that are in the process of development, that affect us personally and assail us from all sides without allowing us to assume the stance of a dispassionate observer. These events affect many of us, sometimes in the literal, physical sense. The command “Hands against the wall!” A stunning blow to the head in a bus filled with people nabbed at a demonstration. Or, for example, the indescribably grotesque intrusion of a detachment of armed, shouting men during the showing of a Godard film at a peaceful leftist seminar. For about a year now the solidarity networks have been constantly delivering reports of new arrests, unlawful summonses for “discussions,” and beatings of activists. It is possible, however, that we should not be so focused on ourselves. The bad news concerns not only the minority of activists and intellectuals. The news also comes from those who are not involved in politics, education or research—from “average citizens.” The very texture of post-Soviet society in recent years has been steeped in anonymous, free-floating violence committed by the “forces of law and order.” Violence against civilians has become a kind of collateral damage, an excess of the existing system of political management. Sometimes this anonymous violence takes on personal and transgressive features. For example, in the person of a police officer who shoots at customers in a supermarket with the cold-bloodedness of a character in a computer game.

2. Local and Global

The pressure of traumatic violence causes an introversion that is common to victims and occasionally forces us to overestimate how exceptional our own experience is. But should we see in these events only a local process dictated by a distant and recent pre-history? Here we immediately conjure up images of some “eternal” despotic Empire that treated its population as subjects rather than citizens who have a legal status and are capable of defending their human dignity. We are reminded of scenes of violence and mass reprisals during various historical periods. Notions of a fatal backwardness vis-à-vis the “west” in terms of a general level of “civilization,” rights and liberties, the public sphere, civil society, etc., are seemingly given fresh content. Such notions suit the liberals, who see post-Soviet society as a result of “failed reforms” or a constantly delayed modernization. They also suit the local nationalists, who think that post-Soviet societies actually are incurably different from the community of “developed countries.” Unlike the liberals, however, the nationalists are in favor of this difference.

Undoubtedly, these notions and positions should be critiqued. They must be historicized. For example, grim imperial images that present themselves as “eternal” conceal experiments in radical revolutionary politics, periods when—at very least, as during the early twenties in the USSR—major breakthroughs were made in rebuilding society on principles of justice and emancipation. The violence we are witnessing now is at first glance an almost “feudal” holdover. But it appears that this violence conceals a quite modern system of administration that is consistent with the latest forms of capital accumulation that have taken shape throughout the world in the neoliberal age.

So the many arrests on suspicion of “extremist” activity should not be seen merely as inventive tricks of a local authoritarianism (rooted in a centuries-long “despotic” tradition) seeking ever-newer excuses to block all grassroots protest movements. Only post-Soviet intellectual and political provincialism (in the negative sense of a narrow view of the situation) would affirm that this is the case. Progressive post-Soviet leftists must maintain a dialectical position on the question. It is important to understand how the mainstream of global capitalism is transformed in a specific way in our local context.

3. “Extremism” and Securitization

One undeniable worldwide tendency in recent times is the politics and ideology of securitization. Under the pretext of imagined or real threats (“terrorism,” military conflicts, migration, environmental catastrophes, epidemics, etc.) and, of course, “on behalf of and for the safety of citizens themselves” ever-newer emergency measures of control and management are introduced. At the same time, the list of “threats” grows longer. Securitization should be understood as a process of the continuous production of the sphere of the “dangerous” itself and, at the same time, of new techniques of “crisis” management. The politics of emergency measures has more and more influence on society, both on the public arena and on private space. In certain situations the action of formal legal institutions (presumption of innocence, civil liberties) is entirely suspended. Consequently, the authorities and law enforcement are given ever-greater powers, as well as technical capabilities for control and surveillance.[1]

The politics of security in its newest form was called into being by societal transformations that occurred under the influence of neoliberal capitalism. First, they are connected with the need to protect investments and the financial sphere in general, especially amidst the current economic crisis. Second, the anxiety of the ruling elites has a direct influence on the initiation of new emergency measures, for they are afraid of mass protests due to the consequences of the global economic collapse. Third, securitization is programmed on a deeper—structural, productional or even ontological—level. Increased workforce turnover, the rise of the uncertainty factor in all labor processes, precarization—i.e., the lack of minimum “social security,” stable labor relations, and living conditions—have become stakes in the political game. New conditions of exploitation give rise to particular types of subjugated subjectivity that seek reassurance, the conversion of the anxiety provoked by uncertainty. They cannot recognize the causes of this apprehension, and it is easily transformed into a specific fear that is linked to one or another specific figure of the “other,” the “enemy” (“terrorists,” “migrants,” “extremists”). Whereas classic nineteenth-century capitalism inflicted suffering only on the worker’s body (hunger, lack of sleep, poor housing and living conditions), the modern form encroaches on the entire person, operating on the affects, fears, and cares that capitalism itself creates. Martin Heidegger elaborated an “existential analysis” of this subjectivity during the severe economic crisis of the Weimar Republic and on the eve of the Great Depression. But now it seems that these existential structures are becoming the “fate” of all those who live amidst constant uncertainty and securitization. Government administrations, by introducing additional security measures and conducting ever-newer “anti-extremist” campaigns, propose and effectively use the symbolic compensation of the agonizing real uncertainties engendered by the very relations of production of modern capitalism.

Finally, the governance strategy that makes this politics so popular consists in the fact that from now on, any specific social, political or class antagonism expressed in a grassroots protest movement is presented as a threat to the state and public security and is equated with phenomena of a completely different nature (epidemics, manmade disasters). Hence the particular breadth and vagueness of the term “extremism,” which the authorities use with such abandon in order to legitimize their “special operations.”

4. “Managed Democracy” in Crisis

Having outlined these tendencies we can look at the situation from the perspective of how things stand on the local level. In post-SovietRussia the mantra of “stability” undoubtedly represents the local version of the politics of securitization broadly understood. In official rhetoric, the current “stability” is set against the uncertainty and “chaos” of the nineties as a genuine achievement of the current regime. It represents itself as the conqueror of “terrorism,” “extremism,” “armed separatism,” as well as the political and economic turbulence of the “transitional period.” The mythical narrative of the transition from “chaos” to “order” aspires to structure the popular perception of the historical moment. However, “stability” is an absolutely empty sign that is chiefly supported only by the images and rhetoric of the official mass media. This is the effect of a strategy of limitation that brackets off all elements that do not fit into the picture of the new order from media representation. Images of “stability” are produced in abundance even now. After all, as the state propagandists say with remarkable voluntarism, “The crisis isn’t in the economy, it’s in our heads.” These images are created via exclusion—exclusion of workers in state enterprises, pensioners, precaritized cultural and educational workers, as well as other “low-income” individuals.

The general political form of “stability” is a regime that, until recently, almost officially called itself “managed democracy.” In this model, the president and his administrative apparatus are seen as “crisis managers” of sorts whose main task is to maintain the manageability of the system by any means, including emergency measures. The managerial model spreads to the whole of the political arena, attempting to manage all political forces with whom it is “possible to negotiate.” Politics is just a “business” that has its own paid administrators and contractors. All other political forces that cannot be managed through “investments” and “projects” and who cannot be “negotiated” with are severely marginalized. How could it be otherwise? After all, those “unmanageable” elements dare to have their own projects for changing society! All situations in which violence is used in this system arise in zones of such “unmanageability.” Everything that cannot be managed, everything that contradicts this consolidated bureaucratic-administrative system causes the state to become aggressive and intervene. All that is unmanageable must be crushed: that is the maxim according to which law enforcement operates. It is possible to negotiate with everyone else.

A consequence of “stability” and “managed democracy” is the politics of normalization which, in recent times, has been penetrating to an even deeper social level. There are the “normal people” who make up a homogenous society, the “loyal majority.” But there are also those who are “abnormal.”[2] These people cannot be managed; they are incomprehensible, they criticize, they are frightening even in their small numbers. They are a grim reminder of the “bad conscience” of “managed democracy.” We can observe the rise of an entire group of new “abnormal” activists of grassroots civic and political movements, young subculture “freaks,” politicized intellectuals who are seen as a dangerous and incomprehensible “bohemian” crowd because of their complex language and way of life. At the same time, they are able to publicly make their voice heard. Their activity clearly doesn’t fit into a business model that a manager can understand. With their behavior they undermine the unspoken rules of loyalty, obedience, and the new, incredibly cynical post-Soviet “realism” and “pragmatism.”

So “stability” is actually only proof of greater consolidation and reinforcement of the “security” apparatus itself. Police interventions are intended to demonstrate a “monopoly on violence” as signs of the ubiquitous presence of a “strong state.” Anyone who disputes “stability” by virtue of their very existence, thinking, and behavior; anyone who openly casts doubt on it; anyone who expresses disagreement with it as the only possible order is potentially suspect. The recently launched campaign to identify “sources of destabilization” was the first reaction of this system to signs of the growing economic crisis and, as its consequence, the narrowing of the zone of manageability.

5. Violence as a Commodity

The new paradigm of “security” has been established on both the legal and institutional levels. After 9/11, like some other countries, Russia passed a law “On the Prevention of Extremism” (in 2002). However, many distinctive features can be seen in measures related to the institutional support and implementation of the law.

The real start of the active campaign against “extremism” was the creation, on the wave of crisis expectations in 2008, of a special network of “anti-extremist” centers throughout the country. They were formed from armed units previously used to fight organized crime, with all the methods typical of such units. In effect, those who fall under suspicion are treated by these new law enforcement agencies as non-citizens and preventively stripped of any legal status; the new units act against them essentially the way they used to act against the criminal mafia. Recently, independent political and trade union activists, organizers of antifascist rock concerts, engaged intellectuals, and artists have become objects of suspicion as “extremists.” The transition from the potentially troubling status of “unmanageable” to the status of persons stripped of civil rights during police raids and detention has been swift and sometimes shocking.

The operational logic of the “anti-extremist” centers grows out of the overall managerial strategy of “managed democracy.” This strategy creates innovations in the field of police-administrative control in the form of a “project” with a certain budget that has to prove it is “competitive” in a limited amount of time. The “anti-extremist” centers must quickly show the products of their work: inspections, raids, and acts of violence. And these have not been long in coming: in the past six months they can be counted in the dozens. In this situation, violence is a paradoxical commodity in a new segment of the “security” market. As a breakdown of the peaceful institutions of human society, as a brutal exposure of the “real,” and as the production of bare, vulnerable life, violence was always a means of demonstrating the prevailing balance of power without fail. In this case, it is also a sure means of showing the “efficacy” of the new police-administration project, of demonstrating its “competitive” edge over more traditional security services. We may suppose that the logic of this marketization and competition in the sphere of security politics should, in the final analysis, hasten the crisis of the very system of “managed democracy.”

6. Resistance, Activism, Subjectivity: What Kind of “Community” Do We Need?

When discussing the political contexts of the eventful “long May” of 2009 it is necessary to emphasize the significance of some other events. They had to do with resistance to the administrative “security” and “management” machine, which threw its disproportionately large and armed forces at the small and heterogeneous milieu of Russian leftist activists, intellectuals, and artists. Surrounded by constant news of detentions and beatings of people many of them know personally, the participants in these actions were also asymmetrical in their display of solidarity. Aside from well-known tactics, they were quite inventive in using the capabilities of modern visual and media culture while also circumventing the coarse filters of administrative control over access to the public arena (for example, getting permission for a picket). That is how the interesting experiments in translating political language into the language of engaged contemporary art practices arose—the hunger strike and street gatherings of artists that resulted in quite political works that very wittily unmasked “managed democracy” in action.

Theorists who have turned to an analysis of the leftist movements cropping up amid the ruins of former communist parties and socialist states note the dual nature of their formation, which is at once active and reactive.[3] On the one hand, there is a moment of identification with the resistance to the blatant violence, abuse of power, brute force, and reckless audacity of the new capitalist “masters.” It has a defensive, protective character. On the other hand, just as important is the moment of transformation of this reactive, defensive movement that arises for particular reasons into an active movement that constitutes and creates a new field of agency that is relatively autonomous and generates both its own universal political projects and specific subjectivities capable of supporting and implementing them.

Here I can also speak on the basis of my own personal experience, including my experience as the person in charge of an unusual discussion of “leftist philosophy” at the educational seminar in Nizhny Novgorod that was raided by the “anti-extremist” center. The seminar was conceived as a “human community,” as a temporary “commune” whose experiment in living could be joined by anyone who came to the seminar. Fully restoring the work of the seminar after this violent interruption was an elementary act of resistance, but it was also the moment that changed the entire situation of what we had been talking about. Thus, in addition to exchanging and developing our knowledge, the very means of running the seminar as a “community” raised the question of the practices and forms of transforming our lives and our own subjectivities. This transformation proceeds through practices of self-organization, self-education, cooperation, and self-valorization, i.e., through those human capacities that no “privatization” or politics of “security” can appropriate or completely control.

Confronted with extremely prosaic and cruel things in the everyday world of post-Soviet managed democracy, which is monstrously distant from the experiments of emancipatory thought and the revolutionary practice of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, activists clearly should not shrink from “high-flown” philosophical formulations. The question of activist subjectivity is directly related to specific and practical things: to expanding the movement, to heightening awareness of its problems, to its political power, to new forms of community, language, and coordination. It is related to a simple question: what kind of life, what kind of larger “community” do we want not only for ourselves, but for others? Given our specific conditions, what kind of cooperative transformation of our lives are we capable of desiring? These conditions often seem distant from the great historical exemplars of revolutionary practice, political texts, and works of “leftist philosophy” that we have inherited. This is not only a question of programs and arguments of one organization or another, with the language and methods of formulating tasks borrowed from the “eastern” or “western,” “new” or “old” leftists of the twentieth century. This is a question of creating a common life without naïveté, with a critical approach to an unduly emotional, starry-eyed understanding of it, but with a negation of that ostensibly “realistic” cynicism and skepticism in whose deadening language we immerse ourselves on a daily basis.


[1] Of course, the paradigm of securitization is not new. It is more likely a modern excess of state apparatuses that has gradually emerged since the start of the process of capitalist modernization. In his lecture series Security, Territory, Population (1977–1978) Michel Foucault makes the distinction between the techniques and arrangement of disciplinary power on the one hand, and the mechanisms of “security” on the other. “Security” as a power strategy arises in connection with the formation of notions of the state as a kind of “living” social organism that must be protected from internal and external threats while preserving the “national interest.” As the ideologists of the bourgeois state supposed, police and “police science” (as a field of systematic population registration and computation) were necessary to guarantee this interest.

[2] We use this term not in a judgmental sense, but in the analytical sense that Michel Foucault gave it in his eponymous 1974–1975 lectures.

[3] See, for example, Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity, 2004.

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Filed under activism, critical thought, our newspapers, political repression, protests, Russian society

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