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#15: Reactionary Times

Alexei Penzin /// Uncanny Stability

It is late in the evening in the Moscow Metro but the train is full, nevertheless. An Activist and a Theoretician are riding together. Across from them, there is a glossy advertisement for some kind of pate, flying off into outer space to the slogan “The whole world is not enough!” Beneath it, one can see a public notice from the militia informing all visitors to the city that registration is mandatory. A travelling salesman with a big plastic bag is demonstrating the newest kind of glass cutter, dissecting glass samples for the passengers’ pleasure: “If I’ve caught your interest, don’t hesitate to ask.” A Chinese man sits nearby, flipping through a book with hieroglyphs on the cover. Across from him, a group of teenagers is loudly discussing the newest types of smartphones. A 40-year old man is stretched out sleeping on one of the benches at the back of the car. An empty beer bottle rolls back and forth on the floor to the rocking of the train.

It is late in the evening in the Moscow Metro but the train is full, nevertheless. An Activist and a Theoretician are riding together. Across from them, there is a glossy advertisement for some kind of pate, flying off into outer space to the slogan “The whole world is not enough!” Beneath it, one can see a public notice from the militia informing all visitors to the city that registration is mandatory. A travelling salesman with a big plastic bag is demonstrating the newest kind of glass cutter, dissecting glass samples for the passengers’ pleasure: “If I’ve caught your interest, don’t hesitate to ask.” A Chinese man sits nearby, flipping through a book with hieroglyphs on the cover. Across from him, a group of teenagers is loudly discussing the newest types of smartphones. A 40-year old man is stretched out sleeping on one of the benches at the back of the car. An empty beer bottle rolls back and forth on the floor to the rocking of the train.

 

Theorician: So how many new members have joined your organization lately?

Activist: Not many, only a few. But they are becoming more and more active and conscious!
Theorician: Remember how five or six years ago, everyone was talking about a “shift to the left.” It seemed as though “protest potential” were haunting society as a whole, and that these potentials would only have to be harnessed properly. Just take those desperate manifestations against the monetization of pensioner’s privileges. Liberal intellectuals of the older generation accused us of conforming to a general trend. We answered that it wasn’t just fashion and not just another “discourse,” but the action of a reality that they were refusing to acknowledge! We talked a lot about the left’s “counter-hegemony” in politics and culture. But where is all of this today? Nothing has changed one single bit.

Activist: We’re working on it. We carry out educational seminars. Lately, we carried out a few successful pickets and actions. The trade union movement is finally coming alive. Look at what’s happening at Ford. There’s no reason for petit bourgeois panic! You’re ascribing too much significance to what’s being presented in the cultural field. In this sense, you really are a fashion victim. But in reality, things are still developing.

Theorician: That doesn’t necessarily contradict what I’m saying. Yes, there are new people. New groups, trade unions or whatever are taking shape. But it seems unlikely that any of this will spread to the population at large any time soon. The mass media have been full of songs about what really counts. Spiritualism and religious goobledygook are suddenly everywhere, even in incongruous places like former wine factories. As our learned opinion pollsters tell us, everything sinking deeper and deeper into “political apathy,” as people put all their efforts into “private life.” People are falling asleep again, drifting off into illusions that lead away from the universal and collective dimension of the contemporary.

Activist: It turns out that “apathy is the mother of order!” Eager to please, some wise men are even starting to say that apathy is a regrettable but necessary thing in a “sovereign democracy.” Because otherwise all kinds of idealists and communists will immediately come to power. Or some new Führer, god forbid! So of course, apathy is the “lesser evil.” Ours is best of all bad worlds. Say hurray to the monotonous joys of consumption for some and the daily worries of survival for others. This, actually, is what they call “stability.”

Theorician: Our experience of stability only amounts to about five or six years. People who lived their active lives at the peak of the Brezhnev stagnation say that it seemed like it would last “forever.” We sometimes have very similar feelings today. This stability has a broader historical context. In the Nineties, the liberals naively hoped to involve the population at large in a broader neo-capitalist process through small business, following the entrepreneurial ideology of activity and inventiveness. In 2000, the ruling class abandoned this mobilizing position and moved on to populist methods of control, which now require the spread of silence and apathy.

Activist: Think of Gramsci and his famous conception of hegemony. He opposed hegemony to dictatorship as direct, immediate domination. As strange as it sounds, the situation in the Nineties was a dictatorship, albeit a neo-liberal one. For an example of its dictatorial methods, look at the “shock therapy” of 1992, which hiked prices by dozens of times, not to mention all the other sad stuff that happened later on. Today’s official policies are attempting to make the transition to a hegemony of a rather strange sort. Because of the onset of apathy, there is no “civil society” of the kind that flooded out onto the streets in the late 1980s. According to Gramsci this is exactly the constituent power that hegemony tries to capture with its flexible political maneuvers and alliances. Social movements now need to be created from scratch, such as in the absurd activity of all kinds of loyal civic “youth organizations,” whose meetings number in thousands. This is why the state needs new ideologists, new “conservatives,” and new “positive” cultural projects, producing a texture of consent.

Theorician: But at the same time, there has been an undeniable change. It’s like in a Phillip Dick novel; everything is the same, but the pack of Marlboros you buy at the supermarket contains two cigarettes less… There is a discomforting sensation of the “uncanny,” das Unheimliche that follows you in the metro, and out on the streets. Everything that seemed so familiar suddenly becomes strange and frightening. Like Red Square on New Years Eve. This time around, it was almost filled completely with migrant workers. The poor guys had no other place to go on the holiday, which makes sense if you think of the conditions they live under in Moscow. So the militia cordon let them through to celebrate “the best holiday of them all.” Something that was meant to stay secret suddenly comes to light, as Schelling said in the 19th century.

Activist: This is all about those real processes that suddenly burst to the surface. We are seeing a final privatization of the remainder of the Soviet system, its communal administrations or its educational and cultural institutions. Everything is sucked into a whirlpool of capital. There is no outside. And almost nobody protests or gets upsets, even when we try to draw public attention to this process. There really is something uncanny about this “stability”!

Theoretician: This final push of privatization will outdate the term “post-Soviet space,” used to express the specific quality of our societies and their dialectic of “transition.” Considerations of the pervasive Soviet qualities of everyday life, public transportation, architecture, the system of governance now simply obfuscate the closure of this stage of our history.

Activist: At the same, the privatization of natural resources is beginning to reap real profits. In oil we trust! The real source of all these new religious and mystical paeans is to be found in the millions of the “exchange stabilization fund.” The only thing we know about it is that we are not allowed to spend it on the trivial needs of worldly justice. There it is, the secret plan for the bright future: we have to put it into the stabilization reserve. After a thousand years, there will probably be enough to pay for 100 years of communism. Although we’ll probably have long since run out of oil by then.

Theoretician: Ha! There are “metaphysical” consequences too. The stablization fund remains unused, that is, unactualized. Where could you find a more material embodiment of contemporary interpretations of ancient categories of potentiality and actuality, underlining their asymmetry? This economic institution of stability beautifully maintains the established distribution of the potential and the actual. The sphere of politics is based on an all-encompassing actuality of the “lesser evil,” as a counterweight to the potentialities that seem dangerous or impossible to realize. People actualize their energy in a personalized way. Offices, supermarkets, and cafés are the places where you can find passions boiling! But the stabilization fund is the ideological image of the future, promising collective salvation from this terrible world of “the lesser evil” that constantly threatens to fall apart into isolated parts. The stabilization fund compensates for the weakening of all other potentialities, through their monetization, so to speak!

Activist: Listen, this is an interesting conversation, but I have to get out at the next stop. What does this all come down to?

Theoretician: I would say that it comes down to a transition away from the formal subsumption to reality that Marx mentions in Capital. Formal subsumption only takes hold of the means of production. In our case, the Soviet legacy was distributed to a modest number of capitalists. This early stage is more formal, since capital has no influence over what you do and how you live. You just have to sell your work as labor, entering the system from the outside. The post-Soviet system was still a formal, exterior subsumption. What we see today, on the contrary, is real, immanent subsumption. Capital tries to draw profit from the organization and the social character of labor, attempting to control them as well as our very lives. This is the moment we experience as something so vividly “uncanny.”

Activist: Mmmm…well. That’s it then. From apathy to the uncanny. From formal submission to real submission! Oh brave new world! I guess I’ll see you later.

Theoretician: See you later.

The voice on the loudspeaker says “Next stop: Tekstilshiky!” The activist gets out. The empty beer bottle rolls out of the car and shatters on the platform.

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