Issue: №3 2014

Section: Conversations

Neoliberalism of the Noughts

Neoliberalism of the Noughts

The material is illustrated with works of Nikita Kadan and Aleksander Burlaka from the series “Neoplasm”, 2010. Courtesy: Nikita Kadan, Aleksander Burlaka

Boris Kagarlitsky Born in Moscow in 1958. Sociologist and political scientist. Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements (Moscow). Author of many books, including Uprising of the Middle Class (2003), Peripheral Empire (2004), Directed Democracy 2005, From empires to imperialism (2010) and others. Lives in Moscow.

Viktor Misiano: In the span of the last ten years, our periodic encounters dot through the entire work of MAM. And that is why your appearance in this issue, summarizing these years “lived together,” seemed inevitable to us. In the course of our discussion, I aim to present you the symptomatology of this epoch, revealed in the course of our examination of the artistic process, in order to understand to what extent it has a local artistic character, and to what extent it could be recognized as part of some broader social dynamic.

In my opinion, the development of art of the last decade refutes the favoured dichotomy of our liberal press—of Yeltsin’s democratic 1990s, and Putin’s authoritarian 2000s. As a participant and observer of artistic processes, I can bear witness: by and large, what came to fruition in the ‘00s, is exactly what was desired and dreamed of in the ‘90s. And if from time to time in the artistic community one hears a retort that discloses a certain disappointment, this is related mostly to particulars and details, but not to the essence of the situation. For the artistic community, the traditional liberal lament of the “unfulfilled democratic hopes,” is typically uncommon.

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This has to do with the goal to create a “Western-type system of art” set by the artistic community during the period of liberal reforms in the first post-Soviet years. Moreover, this system of art was understood in the spirit of the specific Russian liberal ideology of those years. The so-called “young reformers” and the journalists of current affairs that gave them a voice, considered that democracy is the product of a free market, and the idea of the sovereignty of the people seemed to be something that was reminiscent of Soviet official rhetoric. However, in art, it was presumed that an artist’s escape out from the control of the state into the sphere of artistic market exchange was the only possible path to the world of creative freedom and high artistic professionalism. And if the reformers berated the government for half-hearted politics and the deference of privatization, then from the artistic community, the reproaches boiled down to the lack of supporting market structures and the lack of promotion of “one’s own” artists. All the complaints from the artistic community of the “valiant ‘90s,” the “epoch of democratic hopes,” could be reduced to the statements “nobody is buying the art” (in reference to individuals), and “nobody gives art tours” (in reference to state institutions). In other words, everyone agreed that art had to be well-endowed politically and financially. And that is why today, when individuals “buy art,” and state institutions “give art tours,” this seems like the materialization of all the cherished wishes of the ‘90s. This is how Putin’s status quo has congealed.

Boris Kagarlitsky: It seems to me that the reading of fairy tales should have taught us one simple thing: when you are speaking with a genie, you must formulate your wishes with incredible accuracy. Because more often than not, you will receive from the genie exactly what you asked for. It is another thing altogether that this may not be exactly what you wanted. The intelligentsia wanted a market and it received a market. Let’s note here that in those years, freedom and democracy for the intelligentsia were identical to the creation of a consumer society. And it received exactly the form of freedom, and even in some sense, the form of democracy, which fundamentally corresponds with a consumer society.

When we complain that our democracy is not quite a democracy, and as evidence, we try to show how it is different from Western democracy, this is undoubtedly true. But two instances that our intelligentsia stubbornly refuses to consider remain. Firstly, democracy is different in the West, because over there it is not entirely bourgeois, not entirely market-based, and not entirely consumer-based. Strictly speaking, those same democratic institutions originated long before the emergence of capitalism, but formed and transformed under the influence of socialist, social-democratic, “populist,” and other movements, which our intelligentsia sees as principle opponents and as a threat to liberal democracy. And namely by virtue of these tendencies, Western democracy does not exactly resemble our managed or sovereign democracy.

Secondly, the impression of our backwardness in comparison to the West is partly false. In reality, we are ahead. Because we embody dominant global tendencies in contemporary capitalism in the most active, radical and consequential manner. And this is also comprehensible, since from the perspective of capitalism, Russia really is a certain tabula rasa, in the sense that capitalism in contemporary Russia does not espouse any values. Thus, there is nothing here that cannot be destroyed. However, the development of capitalism in Europe is limited not only by the force fields of other organized classes (with the exception of the bourgeoisie) and social and cultural tendencies, but is also constrained by certain values and prohibitions. Owing to a lack of constraints and consistent radicalism of liberal transformations, including the radicalism of that same intelligentsia that complains that things here are not like in the West, an opportunity presents itself to bring to fruition the most ultracapitalist and neoliberal tendencies of the most consistent and uncompromising, harsh and aggressive variety. And then we complain to the genie that this is not exactly what we expected. But it is executed in the exact way that it was demanded! Not what was expected, but what was asked for. And if you receive that which you do not expect, that means that when you were asking for it, you did not quite understand what you wanted to receive. That means that your demands express both the narrowness and depravity of understanding itself.

If we are to attempt to denominate a global tendency of the “noughts,” it might be described as the continuation of an all-encompassing arrival of neoliberalism. Throughout the entire world, neoliberalism withdraws further and further from the sphere of economics. And if the neoliberalism of the ‘80s in Europe and in the ‘90s throughout the world was first and foremost an economic doctrine, presupposing a total domination of privatization of the market and enterprise in the sphere of economics, then the neoliberalism of the ‘00s becomes, to a large extent, a cultural doctrine. And this presupposes the maximum infiltration of the market into those spheres that were earlier non-market, or even non-economic. Classic examples are education, health care, and that same art and culture. Even such themes as family planning, the organization of private space and the self, and so on. All this must now be subordinated to economic logic, moreover, a logic constructed exclusively on the principle of a market defined through private property and competition.

Neoliberalism is not just an economic doctrine, nor is it the destruction of the public sector or non-market structures. Neoliberalism is the kind of positive doctrine that reorganizes corresponding space in a specific way. That is, for example, neoliberalism does not mean that subsidized objects will cease to exist. Nowhere and never have neoliberal regimes refused government subsidies, which, compared to the Keynesian epoch, generally only grow. In the same way, neoliberalism does not obliterate bureaucracy by definition (the quantity of which grows ubiquitously, as do the expenses for its upkeep), but also—considering not just pure ideologists, but strategists responsible for their word—it does not even promise to do this. What is at stake is different: that both bureaucracy and subsidization begin to work for the market and according to its logic. Simply said, you will be subsidizing the kind of object that the market deems valuable. This means that if you have a readership, you could receive subsidies for the publication of your book. If you have an audience, you could receive money for films, exhibits, etc. But what neoliberalism does not subsidize is precisely the transformational cultural and social politics geared towards changing society, which primarily signifies a rupture not in state subsidies, but in the enlightenment criteria of universal values and rights, providing building blocks of state policy concerning subsidies at the end of the nineteenth and even until the end of the twentieth centuries, before the arrival of the epoch of neoliberalism.

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Another conclusion follows from this: neoliberalism is an extremely conservative system. It is possible to develop only what exists, and to support what is already being created. The same thing is happening in science. Scientists complain about a crisis, and that the current system of financing—the politics of stimulated “innovations”—precisely blocks any attempts of creating qualitatively new paradigms of investigations. Paradoxically, the cult of innovation is ultraconservative in substance. At its foundation, there lies the necessity to constantly renew some small details so that nothing changes in substance. No transformational project within the bounds of this environment—except for the project of privatization itself, or the fragmentation of the whole into parts—can be fulfilled. This is the kind of environment that extinguishes any ambitious initiative, since in the end, everything boils down to trifles and details. This is a kind of spongy, crumbly, sandy environment, that subsumes any kind of energy. It does not oppose, it just subsumes. That is why, despite all the innovational demagogy and games in newness characteristic of neoliberal propaganda, in practice, all transformations and innovations are completely blocked. We find ourselves in a situation where mini-innovations are promoted, but an innovational approach is impossible. This super-conservative environment encourages complication rather than change, addition rather than development. Thus, there is no contradiction between the absolute conservatism of contemporary politicians, ideologues and economic leaders, and their delight in innovation. This is an understanding of innovation as action which does not change anything in essence; the juxtaposition of a certain local dynamism with the stillness of the overall picture.

In general, Russian ‘00s are very characteristic for global neoliberalism. Something is being built, something is being done, and at the same time, nothing happens. The structure is static, yet, it constantly makes flashes, creating an external effect of dynamism, but nothing changes. Within the bounds of such a structure, the absolutely natural tendency is the rise of corporatism. In the conditions of a market approach with the aid of corporate organization, you can maximize your benefits on that same market. You can integrate and combine clusters. In a corresponding fashion, you optimize the part of the market under your control to serve common goals. As a result, we observe an incredibly fast development of a specifically Russian capitalism, since this type of corporate capitalism—which we observe in Russia since 2002–2003—appeared in Europe and US approximately in the 1880–90s. Thus, here we were heading on a path of catch-up development, but incredibly, Russian capitalism did not just catch up to Western capitalism, but has almost leveled with it. Although this is a general tendency of the last few years—tautening major elements from the periphery to Western models. Moreover, tautening to those authoritarian-command forms of capitalism, that at the beginning of twentieth century had nearly suffocated democracy in Europe.

This is precisely what Max Weber described in relation to the Russian Revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century, when, analyzing the corporate evolution of capitalism he indicated its fundamental incommensurability with democracy. He showed an organic connection of this system with the contemporary capitalist industry, having reached somewhat pessimistic conclusions concerning the future of democracy in Europe. Although, in Western Europe, according to Weber, democracy may still survive. But not because it is organic to capitalism, but because it became an integral part of the lifestyle, tradition, and culture and attempts to break it will be unsuccessful. Democracy is rooted in the everydayness of a Western citizen. It grew out of pre-capitalist relations, but it cannot be simply abolished by capitalism.

Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we observe the corporate evolution of capital in peripheral countries, but with the adjustment made for the weakness of the liberal-progressive movement therein. After all, this movement was never fundamentally antagonistic to left values, and with their collapse it was discovered that it never acted on its own, without also leaning on other public forces that are now extinct—on social-democrats, or on communist parties, or on that part of the intelligentsia that was much more left-leaning, but nevertheless found itself in the same intellectual field—simply said, on the universities. Indeed, a university is the kind of progressive liberal institution that foments notions of liberal values and liberal openness, but where at the same time, the leftist discourse is both permissible and legitimate. At the moment when you begin to remove the left discourse from there, or you squeeze it out through ideological channels (or it begins to crumble itself), it appears that on its own, the liberal progressive educational discourse is not sufficient to support the moral self-reproduction of that environment.

As a result, the corporate-authoritarian order does not just establish itself quicker and with less resistance in the countries of the periphery than in the countries of Western Europe—the countries of the centre—but also, its political consequences are much more widely felt. Democracy perishes, having never been born. However, presently, we can also observe the revenge of corporate structures in the West. It is apparent that the West is becoming less and less democratic. An example for this is France, which, despite collectively mobilizing against pension reforms, has nevertheless still received them. It is also possible to recall the history of the European constitution, which regularly fails in referendums, but is still carried forward under a different name. The elites constantly push their agendas against public opinion, which is expressed quite vividly, and it seems is no longer under discussion. Thus, in the framework of general anti-democratic tendencies, Russia emerges as the avant-garde. You want it to become a normal European country? Be merry that Russia is trending. You received what you asked. It is believed that trends are always good. But trends can also be revolting. You wanted to gamble with trends? You got it. You wanted to become normal? You did. In this sense, the noughts were a very intelligible and simple time, which explained everything, and which put everything in its place.

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There was also another very interesting feature of the noughts. This was a period when during approximately eight or nine years, the world stood on the brink of a colossal economic crisis, but the crisis never arrived. And in that sense, the noughts were somehow emotionally similar to the early 1980s in the Soviet Union, for example. The possibility of the economic development of neoliberalism had by and large exhausted itself by the end of the 1990s. The evidence for this was in the crisis in 1996–1998, which expressed itself in Russia as a default and the crash of the ruble, in Latin America, in the form of a political crisis having spawned Chavez and others, and in Europe and America, in the stock market crashes in 2001. But the period of crisis between 1997–2001 did not lead to corrective politics and to the end of neoliberalism. On the contrary, between 2001-2003, it began to energetically bloom again. There are many explanations here, but there is one that seems fundamentally important for MAM readers. All neoliberal economies are economies-bicycles. The bicycle either rides, or falls. But when there is nowhere to go, there is no road, new paths have to be formed. This means that new resources, new methods of extracting profit must be found. If all the profit that could be extracted has already been extracted, you cannot expand it—it will only diminish. However, one of the methods for creating profit where it did not exist before is privatization and commercialization. Thus, the market penetrates into spheres that have not been marketized and commercialized. In this sense, one of the outer boundaries of neoliberalism of the noughts is the social sphere: education, healthcare and culture. And we see that in the conditions where there is practically no economic potential for developing the system, the system throws itself to the maximum—according to its own logic—into the development of precisely these spheres.

As a result, the intelligentsia is offered the opportunity to participate in the process of market development of its own sphere, turning into a business agent. This does not mean that it necessarily condones the values of that business; nevertheless, functionally, it stands on the same ground. Otherwise, it is possible to enter an oppositional position, but successful opposition needs to meet two criteria: firstly—the presence of one’s own positive ideological values. Not necessarily a programme, but at least values. And secondly—some sort of connection with society which would interpret your resistance not as a specific, egotistical, or a kind of private interest confronting another private interest, which may be the case even if it is expressed formally by the state. It is absolutely not evident that your private interest must be better. Thus, your actions must be perceived as a formation of a line of battle for the defense of common interests. In that case, you are not just fighting for yourself, even if in the end you are fighting for yourself. Many voluntary assistants appear by your side, and you gain moral authority.

Now then, neither the first nor the second scenario turned out to be possible in Russia in the noughts, because the oppositional intelligentsia was not morally, psychologically or culturally prepared for opposition—especially from the populist-narodnik position. Or at least, narodnik [late 19th century ideology of the intelligentsia espousing a closer relationship with the masses, narod]. Since socialism was not the only doctrine that was rejected; narodnichestvo was also dismissed, as was democracy-as-populism. This is very important. Democracy was reduced to procedure, but democracy as an orientation to the demos was fundamentally rejected. In that sense, those amongst the opposition did not have the resources. From this follows another paradox, which strangely, I observed only in Russia. The most progressive, sensible, and what’s more, the most radical representatives of the cultural intelligentsia do not prefer opposition, but rather, entryism. Thus, instead of fighting for every inch, they attempt to build their cultural platform within the boundaries of the clusteral neoliberal system. The simplest example that we know of, is Boris Kuprianov’s book shop in the Roman Abramovich's Center for Contemporary Culture “Garage.” I underline this because these are the most sensible and, by the way, the most ideologically advanced individuals, capable of building their own strategy of resistance within the boundaries of systemic institutions. And they build it to their needs extremely successfully. But the trouble is that these clusters are isolated from one another, and in perspective, they do not become the hotbeds of massive resistance. Ché Guevara used to say that from a single hearth an entire prairie could be brought to burn, the whole jungle. But not from a cluster. The cluster is allotted to you.

V.M.: How would you explain what distinguishes a cluster from a hearth?

B.K.: A hearth—as described by Che Guevara—is some small spot where you overtake power and reach a certain consolidation. Since it is little, it is more difficult to find and run you down, and nobody is really fully aware about how dangerous you are. That is why you gather strength until you burst out from that platform and spread further. And neither the place, nor the boundaries of the hearth are allotted or prescribed to you by the system itself prior to the fact. So the place of the creation of the hearth—is simply the place where the hearth is easiest to create. In this case, Che’s hearth is not only the technique of partisan war, but a metaphor for social enlightenment. The hearth may not only be in the form of a partisan squad, but also be a cultural project. Even something like the squats of something like Christiania in Copenhagen developed at first according to the logic of an alternative hearth. They can be destroyed or suppressed, but with their own daily practices, they can also infect the neighbouring burghers, who will, in turn, incorporate a part of that lifestyle. The hearth can also be a factory occupied by workers, and so on—it can be anything. But most importantly, neither the place, the time, or the boundaries of the hearth can be predicted by the system. 

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A cluster system is different. A place is assigned, boundaries are drawn in advance, and a certain function within the system is also ascribed beforehand. And as a result, inside this system, you can create a substantive project, and it will really grow. But there are limits to this growth, circumscribed by the system in advance. In that sense, the entire neoliberal model in culture and politics is indeed a “managed” democracy. Because such a model of democracy does not consist of oppressing everyone; that would not be a democracy, no matter how managed. Simply stated, you are given your aviary, with its enclosures, perimeter and a meal plan. And after that, you can run around your aviary and nibble. It is altogether different if you can flee from the aviary. Moreover, because you are not an animal, but a conscious being, you are able to negotiate the size of your aviary, the quantity of food, etc. But in principle, this is all a system of enclosed aviaries, divided between themselves with precise boundaries. Those who refuse to play this game are very often destroyed—although; thank God, not physically, but emotionally. Hence, a situation arose where the most sensible, intelligent, sophisticated and intellectually-developed find themselves locked in their clusters.

Two possible escapes exist in this situation. In the first instance—it is necessary to become conscious of the situation. We have to understand where we are. It is not worthwhile patting yourself on the back about the success of your projects, rather, it is necessary to see their limitations. In the second instance, it is necessary to create some initial communicative strategies and attempt to overcome this clusterness using existing resources. At least, it is necessary to learn to tap between the walls of the cells-aviaries, in order to finally break out of them.

This is the main challenge that appears before us—how to break out of the aviary? There is a flip side to this. Any attempt to flee is fraught with risk. And this risk is not only the risk of repression from the system. If only the problem boiled down to direct, conscious repressions from the system, the problem would not have been so serious. The real complexity consists of an extremely unfavourable, difficult and dangerous environment established for unsystemic actions. There are no guarantees that you will have money. You will never be imprisoned. But neither will you have money. You may come to terms and be ready for the fact that you’ll never have money. But there will not be money for your work—the kind of work upon which you rely on to attempt to do something. This is already more serious. Thus, the struggle to break free from the clusters, the cages, the aviaries, is not an easy thing. It is not easy morally, tactically, or strategically.

It should not be ruled out, however, that aviaries can be broken from the outside. We saw these kinds of examples in the case of the Arab revolutions. Partial approaches to this end can be found in Southern Europe. In countries such as Greece and Portugal. The indignados movement in Spain are the “outraged” who seize city squares. Besides, mass unrests in Europe can no longer surprise, but in cases like these, society begins to spontaneously reorganize, search for new forms of communication, collective action, political behaviour. Moreover, an economic crisis can also destroy these clusters. The conclusion follows that it is possible to at least morally prepare yourself for life outside the aviary—outside the cluster. Even if we do not find effective strategies for escaping ourselves, this does not mean that we cannot escape. We can fully find ourselves beyond the bounds of all these delimiters. The most devastating thing that could occur, is that when it happens, we may be unprepared, incapable, and in reality, simply will not want it. Thus, I think that the moral challenge consists of building new systems of communications, relationships and interaction—what’s called, beyond barriers—while leaning precisely on traditional left values. But not only on socialist values, but also on democratic values—in both a Jacobin and a Leninist interpretation of that word. 

V.M.: What you’re saying about the formation of a corporate cluster of capitalism could also be traced by the example of the transformations in the world of art. On the pages of MAM in the 2000s, we affixed the transition of the artistic environment from a community, to a corporate model. However, despite all the conversations about the restoration of Soviet order, the current artistic corporation does not resemble the Soviet corporation. This is not owing solely to the fact that the Soviet corporation was whole and hierarchical, and the modern one is network-, and cluster-based. Another thing is symptomatic here. If the problems of ideological dictates and axiological aesthetic are set aside, then the Union of Artists, the membership in which guaranteed the professional status of an artist or a critic, was a corporation based on democratic procedures and professional control. It was a transparent corporation.

The present-day corporation, however, ignores both professional criteria, and any public democratic procedures. This is the radical distinction between the Russian system of art and the one created in the Western world in the postwar epoch. There, the commercial and the non-commercial, price and value, an expert opinion and collector’s interests have resided in some reasonable equilibrium. The problem is not just that there are no mechanisms today guaranteeing impartiality (and independence) of expert judgements. The problem, which we have discussed numerous times in MAM, is that all the decisions and judgements are too arbitrary. What is created is either a feeling of complete chaos, or some sort of secret conspiracy. Moreover, the inability to include what perspires in the boundaries of common sense is also one of the reasons for the boycott of critical judgment: how is it possible to critique that, the cause of which you do not know and can only speculate about?! As a result, conspirology becomes the dominant language of description of artistic processes. 

From this, another peculiarity of the new system follows: it constantly creates scandals. In substance, the history of the noughts is the history of scandals. This is how the periodization of the epoch is being constructed: from scandal to scandal. It seems that only through scandal could the ever-accumulating contradictions be resolved; and it is only scandal that can ever-so-slightly shake up the status quo, or to imitate a shake-up, so that the status-quo can be restored without changes.

It cannot be said that Russia stands out against the international context here. I am prepared to agree with you: we really are trending, and in some ways, we are even ahead of the trend.

B.K.: Something quite similar is happening in business. The world of business is constantly shaken up by scandal. And these scandals are often not even connected to the conflicts of business affairs, but are closer to interpersonal conflicts. This happens because the world of large corporate business is founded on the system of autonomous clusters. While you are inside your own cluster and have not yet encountered any external provocation or problem, there are no holds barred. Since from inside, a cluster is opaque. However, when you are faced with external obstacles and problems, there are no rules that could protect you from others. Accordingly, this permissiveness for oneself turns into permissiveness towards another, and we return to that Hobbesian war against everyone, when the social contract is totally absent. We are observing a process of the decomposition of the bourgeois social contract in its classical forms. In other words, if talk about France as an example, they have a contract, they just don’t observe it. They forgot it, but in principle, nobody impedes one of the actors from digging out this informal, but universally recognizable contract, and to use it against someone else, although in reality, the first is no better than the second; they were just the first to get to it.

But in Russia, this takes on a grotesque character once again, since there was never a contract here. There was a Soviet-organized consensus in its Stalinist and Brezhnev forms. It is, on one hand, condemned and denied today; on the other, nobody remembers anything different, and then again, if this Soviet social contract were to be enacted, then it would still appear in a perverted, changed and deformed shape. And this is why the functioning of cluster corporations is naturally subordinated precisely to this logic.

Besides this, there is one more problem. When we say that the system is opaque, this is not entirely the case. It is systematically opaque, but in parts it is indeed, very transparent. Everything depends on how the arrangement of forces developed: some events happen in front of everyone’s eyes, others, behind closed doors, and you would not know what happened, and if anything happened at all. The effect of unpredictability, and, by the way, of conspiracy happens precisely from this juxtaposition of a bright light and of complete darkness. It is as if someone had shined a light on three elements of a picture surrounded by solid darkness and you are trying to reconstruct the whole thing through the image that appears. You just cannot see the entire picture. You can only clearly see fragments. And this is where the inevitable conspirology comes from.

There is another curious moment. When we say that some people occupy their post not according to merit, this is correct. But it does not follow that they are not there logically. It is just that the criteria according to which they came to occupy their post does not correspond to your, or my, notion of their merits based on the general impetus of their activities. In Soviet times, everyone knew cases like these: i.e. Rappaport is a better art historian, but he is Jewish and not a party member; however, some Sidorov is a crappy art historian, but he’s a Russian and a party member, and what’s more, he comes from the village. But the paradox is that these Soviet perversions are not at all personal. Having met Sidorov, you would have understood that he occupies his post because he is Russian, a party member, etc. And in this sense, despite everything, the Soviet system was publicly open, even in its informal manifestations.

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Today, the problem is that people are not appointed to their posts by accident, but neither are they there according to professional merit. This means that they have some other competitive advantages, but situational ones. These could even be old competitive advantages of the traditional type: nationality, religious belief, acquaintances... These could also be business characteristics that do not identify a person as a leader of a substantive process, but as a manager, for example. And many people are truly good managers, but the problem is that effective management in a neoliberal paradigm is removed from the meaning of substantive goals of management. To be more exact, the only substantive goal of management is a formal goal; that is, accomplishing maximum profit. And this is not connected to the upkeep of operations as such. A known phrase from an American automobile manufacturer is that they are “not in the business of making cars. [But they are] in the business of making money.” That is, strictly speaking, there is no difference between what he makes—cars, weapons, butter, condoms or pasta. The only criteria for evaluation of the activity is the rate of profit. But in order for that individual to make the rate of return, someone inside the system has to understand the main business profile—it is just that this person is in a subordinate position. And this, strictly speaking, is one of the reasons for the degradation of capitalism at a certain historical stage: the system expands, and people who manage the system according to formal criteria begin crushing those who are occupied with the upkeep of operations. As a matter of fact, in the Soviet system we saw the same thing, although in a slightly altered formulation.

Now the upkeep of operations is already perceived as a hindrance. We transitioned to another level. There is a fundamental question here: on one hand, money could be made on the development of the system, a sector or a project. But money could also be made on their destruction. And if the only criteria is to make money, or some other type of success calculated by formal monetary coordinates, the activity of destroying some object could be evaluated as positively as the activity of protecting and developing it. Frequently, it is the negative result: in the short term perspective, it is more favourable to destroy. But what is worse is that at a certain point, you lose the criteria that would allow you to distinguish destruction from creation, and this is most frightening. Not when you simply cynically destroy something, extracting profit from it, but when the criterion itself is lost. This is indeed, the end, because it is impossible to comprehend—even for those trying to understand what is happening—as part of the information people receive, as part of the system of values that they have, what it is that they are doing. Then the competitive advantage of effective managers becomes totalizing. And if an effective manager is also revealed to be an effective schemer—pushing other effective managers aside, since they are all the same—then how can we tell one apart from the other? When a person is in charge of the upkeep of operations, then his or her merits can easily be evaluated, but if they only solve formal problems, then it is practically impossible to distinguish the best from the worst. Geniuses do not exist in this sphere. And then all the factors step into the game: intrigue, acquaintances, marriage, nationality, religious beliefs, appearance, who sleeps with whom... And the conspirology continues. But at its root, there is an objective indistinguishable quality of criteria, when it is impossible to have substantive criteria.

V.M.: To conclude, I would be remiss to avoid discussing one last topic with you. As you rightly mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, in the 1990s, the Russian thinking class unapologetically accepted neoliberal hegemony. In art, this manifested itself no less than in other fields, and that is why rare examples of alternative positions to the mainstream were so valuable. This is Anatoly Osmolovsky with his appeals to the French intellectuals of ‘68, and Dmitry Gutov, with his interest in the fundamentalist Soviet Marxism of the 1930–50s. In the intellectual context of the time, these positions boiled down to what we called “gestures of relations.” That is, unable to present an articulated programme, artists invested all their available resources into affirming the possibility of that position. However, in the ‘00s, critical culture has made an evident step forward—it generated a clear programme, accepted systematic forms, found its place in the international context, etc. Here, I’m talking about the platform “Chto Delat?’” [“What is to be done?”] and other similar manifestations. Moreover, although the left position did not become part of the intellectual mainstream in this decade, it did become radical-chic. It is also possible to assert the appearance of what is called the “glamour left,” “gauche caviar,” and the “business left”. Left criticism is becoming a sort of new conjuncture. What are the symptoms for the appearance of these “fellow companions”? How do we relate to them? What shifts do these new social figures reveal? 

B.K.: Behind this, there is an absolutely natural ambivalent situation of people who successfully exist in the cluster system, who have benefited from it, and who do not want to change anything about it. Here, we are dealing with two types of behaviour. The first type are the post-leftists. For example, a person made a name for themselves when they were a radical student. Then that person stopped being such, and became a conservative professor. In reality, that person must completely reevaluate the views and activities of their youth. However, they became famous as a young revolutionary, made a name for themselves, and this name continues to work for them still. A person defended a dissertation that (s)he does not want to rebuke, and not because (s)he agree with everything written, but because a rank and a salary raise are needed. And what do they do? They find an ideal niche of post-leftism for themselves. They need to preserve the elements of the leftist style, elements of leftist discourse—precisely the discourse, but not the theory, content or activity—having written a new context of their own, already-conservative behaviour, into it. After all, it is not pleasant to be a renegade publicly. But it is fairly comfortable to be a renegade in substance, while not refusing anything formally. This is one scenario.

The second can precisely be named the “glamour left.” This is the type of behaviour when you can use leftism and elements of the left style and discourse in order to stand out and be different from others, and thus, to create a market cluster and receive certain competitive advantages, again, without infringing on the common rules of the game. 

These two groups support each other, feed off of each other, and superimpose on each other, forming a near-left environment which is fairly conservative in substance and neoliberal in its behaviour and norms. However, this environment can flourish as long as nobody breaks the system and does not spoil or infringe on its functioning. But when everything begins to stop working and barriers crumble, then all things take a turn for the worse. Because then, it is either necessary to become left again, but they are either incapable, or never knew how. Or, to occupy an honest class position, but already on the other side. But this can only be done when there is a real collision; when that does not happen, then you can continue well on the same way.

However, who can demand anything from these people? In an epoch when the collapse of the master narrative is announced, and in this case, the leftist one, not only are there no clear criteria on the basis of which we could ask something from certain people, but there is no subject who would ask. Simply said, if you or I do not like someone’s behaviour, this is our subjective evaluation. We consider ourselves, let’s say, adherents of a certain tradition—a particular system of coordinates—but because this thought is not objectified by a big movement, it picks up the quality of subjective enunciation of taste. From this point of view, any moral criticism of certain practices and behaviours is certainly possible, but it becomes a factor in the formation of social norms, and does not cause any kind of disciplinary influence.

Moreover, because very often we collide with more new situations that we are forced to analyze individually, we begin to build systems of individual norms, restrictions and allowances. They do not have to correspond between themselves, even with the best of intentions. One has drawn the boundary line for themselves, but another, has drawn another. And to say who is right is also impossible, since this rightness-wrongness is developed through some common opinion within society, and if it is ideological, then it hinges on some sort of social force, or social tendency, which we are presently lacking. Thus, I fully recognize the boundaries of that kind of moral judgment. The answer to the situation at hand could only be the attempt to create cultural-ethical socialities within wider boundaries, stronger social tendencies. Only by identifying oneself with some social movement, can you create some system of criteria. And while there is no infamous serious movement, everything remains on the level of subjective judgments, individual squabbles, and in that case, the less we talk about these things, the better.

Moscow, May 2011


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