Skip to content

Mark Usher on Post-Soviet Social in IJURR

Mark Usher (who does what appears to be some fascinating work on water in Singapore) has a nice review of Post-Soviet Social out in IJURR:

Stephen Collier poses a timely and sophisticated intervention into urban studies and the burgeoning literature on neoliberalism, empirically, analytically and methodologically. Empirically, those concerned with Russia’s economic transitions will benefit from Collier’s book, particularly his historical updating of the orthodox narrative that accentuates the much maligned rounds of neoliberal ‘shock therapy’. This was ‘both contingent and temporally circumscribed’ (p. 2), and certainly does not constitute the entire horizon of post-Soviet political economy. The book develops an ANT-inspired analytical approach that delineates the socio-technical assemblages constituting cities and their urban subjects. Collier has been a strong advocate of this form of analysis, and here the author applies this approach with remarkable results. Borrowing from Karl Polanyi, the author focuses on the substantive economy of Russia, the institutionalized materially constituted components of socioeconomic life that provision the population — pipes, appliances and houses, resource flows, budgetary mechanisms, bureaucratic routines, etc. — and how they normalize everyday behaviour. The book also contributes considerably to ongoing debates within Foucauldian studies, refining analytically and fleshing out empirically the nebulous concept of biopolitics, as ‘the attempt to govern a population’s health, welfare, and conditions of existence in the framework of political sovereignty’ (p. 3).

In this regard the book is also heretical, and refreshingly so, in calling for the ‘reconstruction’ (p. 12) of neoliberalism as a field of study, whilst demonstrating the methodological efficacy of Foucault’s genealogical toolbox for achieving this. According to what Collier refers to as the ‘critical conventional wisdom’ (p. 9), the rolling back of state regulation and the subsequent introduction of unfettered market forces is a prerequisite of neoliberalism. However, drawing on Foucault’s late-1970s lecture series, Collier stresses that neoliberalism is in fact internal not external to statecraft; it is a reflexive variegated style of governmental reasoning as opposed to being a coordinated class project orchestrated from outside. The author accuses critics such as David Harvey and Naomi Klein of failing to trace the concrete connections between neoliberal doctrine and its application in local settings. Consequently, he argues, neoliberalism can appear to be everywhere and anywhere, a pernicious and pervasive presence behind every crack in the empirical curtain and creak on the floorboards of fieldwork. In contrast, Collier trains his anthropological eye for the elemental on its local capillary manifestations.

In chapters 1 and 2, Collier argues that the biopolitical incentive of the Soviet regime was to rapidly industrialize, as the tsar had effectively blocked capitalist urbanization in order to maintain aristocratic power blocks. The ‘Soviet social’ therefore consists mainly of small industrial cities constructed more or less ex nihilo to facilitate modernization. In chapter 3, Collier extends his argument of how Soviet socialism spatially and normatively linked population and production by focusing on the physical construction of cities, examining how architecture, infrastructure and urban planning attempted to nurture a population that was conducive to the Marxist programme of collectivized production. The socialist city would be a machine for the comprehensive need-fulfilment of the workforce that in turn served almost exclusively as a productive input into the national industrial endeavour.

In the following chapter, which takes Belaya Kalitva as a case study, Collier demonstrates how localized dispersed means of utility provision supplying small clusters of homes with heat and water were replaced by a single urban network connected to an industrial centre, which was itself inserted into a national regime of resource distribution. This created a unique networked urbanism, a ‘socioindustrial complex’ (p. 104) that was consolidated at the turn of the 1980s. Nevertheless, as Marx himself remarked, people do not make history as they please — including Soviet planners. Chapter 5 tells the story of the eventual disintegration of the Soviet regime, beginning with the imbalances that occurred in city-building. Capitalist countries were also restructuring in light of technological advances whereas Russia’s cities had become dinosaurs of industrialism, conceptually and infrastructurally locked in. The subsequent programme of structural adjustment, chapter 6 reveals, was far from successful in securing Russia’s future, but critically Collier argues that this was not a pure or even faithful expression of neoliberal doctrine.

Going beyond the ‘high politics and high economics’ (p. 161) of the Washington consensus, the following two chapters focus on what occurred in Russia subsequent to the mid-1990s. Collier provides a genealogy of the ‘substantive’ shift in development policy that recognized the need for intricate reconfiguration of the infrastructural, institutional, spatial, essentially biopolitical characteristics of the Soviet social, in addition to macroeconomic change. In chapters 7 and 8, the neoliberal thought of James Buchanan and George Stigler, and how this translated into governmental practice, is explicated. This involved refining regulation rather than outright marketization, introducing calculative choice, fiscal discipline and competition into Russia’s budgetary processes and national heating network. However, the intransigence of infrastructure meant that neoliberal programmes, proposing household meters, control valves and decentralized pipe systems, were difficult to implement, therefore Soviet norms tenaciously endure.

Whilst Collier does provide a disclaimer that the ethnographic method is not employed in its most traditional sense, I would still have liked more detail on his personal encounters with economic reformers based in Russia to better appreciate the ‘human face’ of neoliberal transition. The little narrative that is provided of conversations with budget officers is illuminating and memorable, and perhaps this is an opportunity missed. Similarly, there is little in the way of imagery that could have graphically illustrated the ‘sticky nexus’ (p. 215) of infrastructure, institutions and the urban form, a tantalizing photographic project. This is not to say the book lacks tables and illustrations, which are indeed plentiful and clear, and aid the reader’s understanding of complex economic theory. Overall, Collier’s book is a convincing corrective to current scholarship on neoliberalism, which takes the material configurations of the city and their political implications seriously. It advocates a nominalist approach to neoliberalism as ‘a topic and problem of inquiry rather than its premise’ (p. 12, original emphasis) which, if heeded, can go some way to grounding neoliberalism as the inexorable abstract omnipresence it has arguably become.