Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2010


Decentralising Economies: Anthropological Perspectives

Lecturer: Professor Catherine Alexander,
Department of Anthropology, Goldsmiths,
University of London, United Kingdom

Main disciplines: Social Anthropology, Sociology, Geography

Dates: 26 - 30 July 2010
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 30 participants


Objectives
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later appeared to be the end of a 70-year experiment with a centralised planned economy. To judge from many characterisations at the time, and since, the Cold War opposition between two rival ways of organising social and economic life was concluded with a victory for the free market. The ‘shock therapy’ package of decentralising and liberalising measures was applied to this vast region of the world. The services, assets and responsibilities of the state, were withdrawn or curtailed. The effects have frequently been devastating.

The objectives of this lecture course are twofold. The first is to explore how social and economic systems in the former Soviet bloc changed after its collapse in 1991, and how this has been experienced by citizens. Unemployment, for example, led to new work patterns, migration, changed gender roles and awkward engagements with volatile value standards and moralities. The second, parallel objective is to challenge some of the assumptions of Cold War rhetorical oppositions by investigating the broader post-war history of state capitalism and shared legacies. In order to do this, the lectures will highlight common beliefs and practices in apparently different political economies, as well as their material manifestation through similar technologies, materials and aesthetics. Moving forward to the last twenty years, events in the former Soviet Union will be placed in a wider global context, in and beyond Eurasia, of decentralising economies and the consequences for people’s lives.

The lectures are structured to move from a broad background and macro-level processes to their effects at the micro-level of household economies and everyday lives. After locating the rise and decline of centralised economies in the twentieth century, in line with the shift from developmental to neo-liberal policies, I discuss the changing function and role of contemporary states. This is followed by debates on the nature of the public sphere in the early twenty-first century, to ideas of governmentality, self-regulation, and the increasing imbrication of state, market and society. The result, arguably, is not so much a retraction of the state as a kind of neo-mercantilism. The privatisation of state assets and services has been a central plank of these policies, increasingly drawing the third sector into a kind of quasi-privatisation. Labour security is steadily being replaced by precarious, short-term, unprotected contracts. The impacts on fundamental notions of rights, welfare, and gender politics have been profound. In response, household economies show marked changes in gendered divisions of labour and a new reliance reliance on labour migration. It is at the level of the household that the intertwined politics of recognition and redistribution are most sharply experienced.

Cities typically materialise broader socio-economic processes in a heightened form. The final four lectures will therefore examine many of the propositions raised earlier in the week through the built environment and shared material legacies. These lectures consider the social and material effects of changes in planning and urban governance in cities both in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. Post-war housing, which was built to embody a particular sense of the relationship between state and citizen, is now often crumbling away. Housing, and the lived experiences of residents, bring together micro and macro concerns and give a sharp insight into the immediate effects of decentralising economies.

 

Suggested basic books for the course preparation
Students is expected to have obtained and read at least a few of these books in advance of the course.

 

LECTURE OUTLINE

Date: 26th July 2010 a.m.

Lecture 1 & 2: Histories and geographies of centralisation and decentralisation
The lecture course opens with an exploration of the tenacious Cold War rhetoric that opposed states characterized by centralized, planned economies to those described as market-driven economies. By taking a longer-term view, this lecture shows that neither depiction held true in practice. Just as anthropologists and other scholars of the former Soviet bloc concerned themselves with ‘actually existing socialism’, so it is also necessary to pay attention both to actually existing capitalism, and to knowledge exchanges between regions and states conventionally cast simply as adversaries. Shifting the focus in this way allows us to do two things. The first shows that after the Second World War, versions of state capitalism dominated much of the globe. The second, related argument is that there are many material, social and economic legacies in common, a point extended by Chari and Verdery (2009) who link colonial and socialist practices and effects. One consequence of this theoretical restructuring is to emphasise that the unregulated market enjoined upon decentralizing post-Soviet economies, has barely been introduced elsewhere. Rather, a different configuration of state and market has emerged in practice that is more akin to neo-mercantilism; concerns with equitable redistribution have shifted to a politics of recognition.

Readings:

Further reading:

 

Date: 26th July 2010 p.m.

Lecture 3 & 4: What’s left of the public sector? 
In their ideal forms, neither communism nor neo-liberalism, has much of a place for the state. Yet, as Trotsky observed in 1932, in respect of the Bolshevik revolution, state bureaucracies rarely seem to dwindle in size, let alone wither away. This lecture is concerned with the changing forms and practices of states that have overtly been moving to shed control over large parts of social life, devolve power to local administrations, divest state controlled assets and services to the private sector – but which nevertheless remain large. It examines what happened in the 1990s when banks collapsed in the absence of a robust state in the former Soviet bloc, many administrative functions were turned into private agencies, violence became ‘privatised’ and, what was left of the public sector, was itself often fractured into rival rent-seeking appanages.

Well beyond the former Soviet bloc, market values are increasingly being adopted within state bureaucracies under New Public Management principles which advocate the use of internal markets and outsourcing as many ‘non-core’ functions as possible. Some would argue the state has simply become a penal state. The role of elites in controlling and have privileged access to state resources and power is discussed as a growing global phenomenon.

Readings:

Further reading:

 

Date: 27th July 2010 a.m.

Lecture 5 & 6: Governance and governmentality
These lectures track the development of regulation in areas purportedly outside the state. Increasingly, market principles and practices are not only shaping the way bureaucracies perform but also organisations in the public sphere and individuals. Following Foucault’s idea of governmentality, these lectures track the trajectory of the diffusion of centralised power to the governance of the self, which effectively outsources the business of government to the governed, and does so in a manner that is tractable to market interests. Studies of the rise of audit cultures suggest that the experience and power of the state is spreading through such mechanisms as accountability. At the same time, the non-profit part of the public sphere, often referred to as the third sector, is increasingly taking on what had been state service provision; this is variously cast either as empowerment or as quasi-privatisation.

Readings:

Further reading:

 

Date: 27th July 2010 p.m.

Lecture 7 & 8: Privatisation and changing property regimes
These lectures focus on what is often presented as the foundational plank of the free market and democracy: private property. Privatisation is typically taken to be the transfer of publicly or commonly owned assets into exclusive ownership. Closer examination of particular instances illustrates the problems with meaningfully bounding and isolating a property object from one set of social relations and contexts, then inserting it into another. Mass privatization of state assets and services began in Britain in the late 1970s when social housing stock was sold off under the 1980 Right to Buy Act. Shortly afterwards, in the 1990s, many of the countries of the former Soviet bloc privatized state assets (industrial enterprises, housing stock, land) and, in so doing, raised a series of new questions about the fundamental nature of property. Frequently, the supposed transfer of assets in fact left people with liabilities. As many ex-Soviet economies have stabilized, there has been a growing switch of key assets back into state hands but as rent seeking assets.

Readings:

Further reading:

 

Date: 28th July 2010 a.m.

Lecture 9 and 10: Markets and Moralities
These lectures focus on the experiences of new market encounters. These range from a new emphasis on citizens as consumers rather than producers, the experience of trading in or buying from open-air markets, the frequent elision of traders, strangers, dirt and peripheries, and entrepreneurial activities.

Readings:

Further readings:

 

Date: 28th July 2010 p.m.

Lectures 11 and 12: Labour
This lecture examines changes in the nature and experience of labour through three aspects of shifts in work and labour relations. The first, considers economic transformations as contexts moved from assured work to global, flexible capitalism and increasingly unprotected, short-term contracts. The second, considers whether or not factory, and other, work is essentially the same experience, regardless of the wider economic structure in which it is embedded (America or Kazakhstan). The third focuses on the self and community, discussing the importance of work as a means of being human. In this frame, the effects of unemployment and the demands of new forms of work are iscussed. The material in these and the previous lectures highlight the continued relevance of Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.

Readings:

Further readings:

 

Date: 29th July 2010 a.m.

Lecture 13 & 14: Gender and Decentralising Economies
‘The woman question’, as it was known, was a central part of early socialist writings bent on emancipating women from bourgeois oppression via incorporation into the socialist body politic. A large part of this was to be the central provision of childcare and household work. This often failed to happen. Instead women had to cope with domestic labour, collective labour and active participation in public life. With mass unemployment in the formal sector after 1991, many women became the family breadwinners; the double burden of domestic and waged employment took on a new form as state employment contracted sharply. Some of the readings for the previous lectures will also be relevant here for references to masculinities, and changing experiences and roles for men and older generations. Alongside an examination of the post-Soviet states, we also look at the changing politics of welfare in Europe more broadly.

Readings:

Further readings:

 

Date: 29th July 2010 p.m.

Lecture 15: Household Economies
Centrally planned economies typically integrated households and workplaces into the broader economy. Thus, housing and its maintenance, childcare, healthcare and so forth was often provided as part remuneration for work, along with pensions. One effect of decentralizing economies was to sever these connections. Labour was now commodified and separated from household concerns. Distinctions hardened between gendered divisions of public and private spaces. As formal employment has become more precarious, household economic strategies variously drew on community support, turned to self-provisioning, informal economies, or remittances.

Readings:

 

Lectures 16:  Migration and Exile
This lecture follows directly on from those considering the changing nature of the workplace and the household in decentralised economies. The focus here shifts to migrants. After industries collapsed or were ‘restructured’, the numbers of migrants travelling to Europe in search of work increased sharply. The fragmentation of the Soviet motherland into its constituent republics (as nation-states) has left many (Russians in particular) feeling they are in exile. In the 1990s, there were vast movements of people, especially Russians and Germans, back to their historic motherlands. Many found themselves both in a worse economic condition than the countries they had left, and isolated, without the support of former work colleagues or neighbours. Some, by staying still, as states re-formed around them, feel themselves suddenly to be exiles as titular national groups assume power. New cosmopolitan elites constitute quite different transnational groups. Legacies of exile have also shaped some trading networks. Family members exiled during Stalin’s oppressions now sometimes form the necessary foreign links in the Middle East, China and Europe to keep commodity trading chains within the family.

Readings:

Further readings:

or;

 

Date: 30th July 2010

Lectures: 17, 18, 19 and 20: Urban Spaces
Cities typically materialise broader socio-economic processes in a heightened form. This was particularly true of Soviet cities, once cast as the engine of ‘progress’. Since the Soviet Union fell, many such cities have been subjected to accelerated and violent economic adjustments creating extremes of wealth and poverty. But cities outside the former Soviet bloc are also experiencing similar effects from the intensified application of market principles to the remnants of welfare states. These four lectures explore many of the themes examined earlier through ethnographies of, and in, urban spaces. The particular themes are: planning, creative destruction, urban governance, post-industrial urban ghettos, coalitions of corporate and administrative interests, traces of previous socio-economic formations left behind on the built environment, changing values of spaces and housing, the rise and fall of markets – and how the recent economic crisis is in turn becoming inscribed upon the urban landscape, as prime urban land purchased by bankrupt developers in London and Almaty alike has been (temporarily) turned into community gardens. New forms of separation between rich and poor have resulted in wealthy gated communities on the one hand and shanty towns or deprived areas within supposedly wealthy, ‘world’ cities.

These lectures thus end by thinking of some of the common material legacies of decentralising economies. One example, is the large housing stock, often built as a temporary measure, using newly available technologies and materials (prefabricated concrete panels) after the war in response to bomb-damage and / or rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. In both western Europe and the former Soviet bloc, these temporary apartment blocks suggested that there was a common vision of a future where new technology, materials and political aesthetics would combine to materialise a new urban economy of provision for all. The elderly fabric is often crumbling. Responses have varied from privatisation, state management and enrolling the third sector.

Readings:


The lecturer
Catherine Alexander is a Reader in Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. After voluntary work and then working for central government in Britain and Turkey, she was trained in anthropology at the University of Cambridge. An economic and political anthropologist, her main interests are in property relations, urban anthropology, waste and the third sector. She has worked in Turkey, Britain and Kazakhstan. Among her books include Personal States: making connections between people and bureaucracy in Turkey (2002).

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