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#8: State of Emergency

John Roberts /// Internationalism and Globalism

Vladimir Putin’s demand for ‘controlled democracy’ represents an attempt to bring the uncontrolled period of prikhvatizatsia – or ‘wild’ market implentations – under greater state control, hence the President’s recent much-publicized confrontation with the so-called oligarchy and mafia. But the shifting sands of privatizatsia means Putin’s controlled democracy is less an assurance of stability than something faintly sinister. Controlled democracy has become the watchword for the recentralization of the state in conditions of faltering economic growth. The majority of the Russian population is unable to participate in privatizatsia, because they are living below the level of subsistence and therefore are incapable of paying the true cost of commodities. In the area of housing, for instance, tens of thousands of new apartments in St.Petersburg remain unsold. Something like 5% of the population has Western levels of consumption. Thus if Putin has put the break on ‘bandit capitalism’ he has also to contend with growing social unrest and frustration. Most Russian enterprises cannot compete on world markets; and labour, although cheaper than the West, is more expensive than China and the Third World. This will produce increasing conflict over resources in the near future, and conflict over the cost of ‘Western’ privatizatsia. For ideologically and practically privatizatsia is not a done thing in Russia, by any means. Indeed there is a residual resistance to its effects after the first period of de-Stalinization. This has much to do with the continuing impact of collectivist thinking in everyday life and within what is left of state provision in the area of housing. In fact the state bureaucracy, at the moment, plays a paradoxically progressive role of preventing a thoroughgoing implementation of privatizatsia. A residual collective ideology has increasingly come to define – in the absence of the labour traditions of bourgeois social democracy – what is not acceptable about privatizatsia. 

Vladimir Putin’s demand for ‘controlled democracy’ represents an attempt to bring the uncontrolled period of prikhvatizatsia – or ‘wild’ market implentations – under greater state control, hence the President’s recent much-publicized confrontation with the so-called oligarchy and mafia. But the shifting sands of privatizatsia means Putin’s controlled democracy is less an assurance of stability than something faintly sinister. Controlled democracy has become the watchword for the recentralization of the state in conditions of faltering economic growth. The majority of the Russian population is unable to participate in privatizatsia, because they are living below the level of subsistence and therefore are incapable of paying the true cost of commodities. In the area of housing, for instance, tens of thousands of new apartments in St.Petersburg remain unsold. Something like 5% of the population has Western levels of consumption. Thus if Putin has put the break on ‘bandit capitalism’ he has also to contend with growing social unrest and frustration. Most Russian enterprises cannot compete on world markets; and labour, although cheaper than the West, is more expensive than China and the Third World. This will produce increasing conflict over resources in the near future, and conflict over the cost of ‘Western’ privatizatsia. For ideologically and practically privatizatsia is not a done thing in Russia, by any means. Indeed there is a residual resistance to its effects after the first period of de-Stalinization. This has much to do with the continuing impact of collectivist thinking in everyday life and within what is left of state provision in the area of housing. In fact the state bureaucracy, at the moment, plays a paradoxically progressive role of preventing a thoroughgoing implementation of privatizatsia. A residual collective ideology has increasingly come to define – in the absence of the labour traditions of bourgeois social democracy – what is not acceptable about privatizatsia.

This commitment to, or memory of, collectivism, also remains surprisingly strong in the area of art and culture, despite the swing in the early 1990s in the intelligentsia to a rightwing postmodernism. The continuing engagement with the possibility of art’s collective form, with notions of collaboration, with the avant-garde as an internationalist formation, distinguish the most interesting writing and art in St.Petersburg and Moscow. Indeed, in the work of Chto delat’/What is to be done? (St.Petersburg), the group Radek (Moscow), and the Freud Dream- Museum (St.Petersburg), for example, there is a radicalization of the legacy of the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde that is in some ways far in advance of similar debates in Western Europe, although there is no academic theoretical industry in Russia to formalise these discussions. Art’s theoretical claims are debated by artists within an open and combative political culture. As such there is a disinclination to practice irony or subterfuge; in conditions of extensive social crisis the requirements of making art are too urgent to pass off as mere art. This points to a general truth about the law of combined and uneven development under the present conditions of globalization. The so-called peripheries can become the motor of cultural change and revolutionary thinking given their weak link in the chain of neo-liberal power. Thus, because privatizatsia in Russia is incomplete and stalled, the utopian content of collective (and anti-neo-liberal) ideologies can find new forms of mediation on the basis of a contininuity with the past. The earlier Russian avant-garde is opened up again in conditions of its active remaking.

This picture of the weak-link in neo-liberalism producing recalcitrant cultural forms and theory and the basis of fidelity to an older revolutionary culture is also repeated, in France in the 1990s. Through the 1990s neo-liberalism found it harder to stabilise itself than in the rest of Europe. Although trade union membership is notoriously low in France, there was a massive employee and student resistance to the privatization of the public sector and to the affirmation of la penseé unique. This dovetailed with a generalized resistance to Anglo-American cultural hegemony, as leftist French culture sought to assert its independence in a period of general decline for advanced art and cinema in the country. One of the outcomes of this is a kind of swerve among artists and art-theorists of the left back to a local post-Situationist legacy and, as such, to a reengagement with an artistic critique of capitalism and with the possible links between politics and culture. In France these links, at the level of actual artistic practice, had lain pretty much dormant since the mid-to-late seventies in the wake of the arrival of the Nouvelle Philosophies and the shift to the libertarian right within the intelligentsia. Since mid-1990s, however, the cultural effects of neo-liberalism have produced a sizable countermove, as a new generation of artists, political theorists and cultural philosophers have allied themselves to the fledgling anti-globalization movement. The result, across political/cultural journals such as Mouvements and Multitudes, artist groups such as Bureau d’étude and the AAA.Corp, and the revival of a radical sociology of art, has been a growing body of significant art and theory on the question of art’s collective identity and cultural form. What is collaboration in art? In what ways is art political, rather than in what ways might art become political? In what ways is art a category of transferable skills rather than a history of objects? Indeed, in France, as in Russia, the debate on art functions largely outside of the official artworld.

The point here is not to overinflate the importance or influence of what remains here relatively marginal phenomenon in relation to the artworld, or to conflate the formation of what are very different national cultures. But rather to stress that under Anglo-American globalization there are always various centres of counter pressure (European centres as much as non-European centres) producing very different reading and response to cultural globalization. Hence in these two instances, without these two cultural formations to my knowledge talking to each other directly – the new French writing and art is not well known in Russia, just as the new Russian writing and art is not so well known in France – another kind of vision of globalization emerges: the possibility of an internationalism based on the sharing of skills and cultural and political projects. I believe, therefore, that there is something bigger at stake here than a mere reflection on the porous boundaries of national cultures and the fluid character of artistic production under globalization – that is, we are witnessing the generalized emergence of localized politicized art cultures that meet, so to speak, outside, or on the edges of, the known art world. But if these localized politicized art cultures are marginal at the point of their production, as a confederation or constellation of practices across national boundaries they present an extensive network of shared practice and thinking. In this sense they represent the collective global irruption of art’s political enculturalization outside of the prevailing art institution. Now, of course, this is itself an uneven process. As in France and Russia it is those local cultures that have strong historical connections to a reflexive modernity and the avant-garde that will tend to be able to renew themselves. Kinshasa, for example, is still not the same as Moscow. But, nevertheless, as a constellation of forms of practice across national boundaries that converge within the ideal space of dialogue there is a real process of exchange. As Anatoly Osmolovsky, an ex-member of Radek puts it: “An individual project is part of other people’s various individual projects, and one has to find connections between these projects”. 1 Consequently the place and reality of the marginalized oppositional cultures within the main centres – New York, Berlin, London – changes also. These marginalized forces within the centre look outward to the other ‘margins’ as much as to each other. As such they are incorporated into an international space of exchange that doesn’t necessarily make privileged reference to what the supposed centre is doing. The old national hierarchies and deferences to the advanced modernity of the centre no longer apply – even if the advanced modernity of the centre still determines the marginalized place of all oppositional cultures within the whole. In this way the debates and ideas developed in one supposed peripheral national context can come to dominate or direct the thinking of many and disparate contexts. This means that specificity of location and context are not, as in the postmodernist version of globalization part of an extended hybridization of all cultures, but in their locality and particularity remain possible sources of universal and generalisable content. Internationalism across the borders of the ‘global’ art world, then, is potentially a place of debate within a common programme of exchange, rather than simply an entry point into the circuits of global display and veneration.

This notion of artistic internationalism obviously predates contemporary globalization, but at the same time under globalization its content has been opened up to a greater technological fluidity through the internet. The internet is not internationalism, and therefore internationalism it is not to be reduced simply to a issue of technological transmission. However, the new technology does qualitatively transform the delivery systems of internationalism. That is, it wrests it away – to a certain extent – from the slower processes of traditional forms of cultural assimilation (visiting exhibitions, magazines, etc). The effect is a speedier point of convergence between projects and forces of resistance. This, in turn, has a palpable effect on how artists and writers position themselves locally and globally. Following Osmolovsky’s lead here, the artist moves outwards to find a place of conjunction or alignment between his or her work and other sympathetic works as a constitutive part of his or her practice. This is not just collaboration, mutually beneficial to all parties, but the shared recognition of the need to build or extend a space of political and artistic dialogue outside of the prevailing orders of exchange. This maybe the ‘ideal horizon’ of the demand for internationalism, and as such subject to all the usual disappointments of such expectations. But in this instance this internationalism has some real concrete outcomes. The artist is able embed himself or herself in circuits of exchange that provide the basis for an international network of counter- knowledges and shared ideals, rather than passively enter those circuits of exchange of the globalized artworld which merely confer inclusion from the periphery within an undifferentiated whole – an internationalism of the margins rather than a globalization of difference.

1. Anatoly Osmolovsky, ‘In Search of a Critical Position’, Third Text, No 65, Vol 17, Issue 4, December 2003, p. 416

 

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