Talk of the CEE’s Key Theme “The transformations of capitalism” with Zoe Evrard and Denys Gorbach, 1 October 2020 (Sciences Po, France)

Thursday 1st October 2020, 11–12 pm, Sciences Po, Via Zoom

Speaker: Denys Gorbach, Sciences Po, CEE & MaxPo

IIf “hegemony is born in the factory”, what kind of hegemony is produced on the post-Soviet shopfloor, governed by informal conventions rather than explicit rules, equipped with ancient machinery requiring expertise above that of regular “taylorised” workforce, and conditioned by a plethora of non-monetary wage forms provided (or not) by the employer and/or the state? In my presentation, I wish to examine the hegemonic norms of political and moral economy in today’s Ukraine acting at the scale of a workplace. In each of my cases, informality is a constituent element of the hegemonic setting, albeit playing different roles and resulting in different configurations. I also argue that informality, both implicitly present and explicitly thematised in the everyday discourse, is the principle which allows to draw connections between the political imaginaries on the workplace and the macro scales. Finally, this can be contextualised by Ukraine’s place in the global political economy, with its uneven and combined characteristics reinforcing the tendencies observed at the micro scale.
My research is based on the fieldwork I have been conducting in a large industrial city in the south/east of Ukraine from January to June 2019. It included in-depth interviews with employees of two mining companies, owned by Ukrainian oligarchs with little legitimacy, of a vertically integrated metallurgical holding owned by an “embedded” oligarch, and of a metallurgical factory owned by a foreign corporation. This is complemented by data from participant observation gained while working at a small window-making factory founded in the 2000s in the same city, as well as close observation of a series of wildcat miner strikes during the same period.

Using the general Gramsci-inspired theoretical framework and the insights of Hillel Ticktin, Simon Clarke and Michael Burawoy regarding Soviet and post-Soviet factory regimes, I analyse differences between the life-worlds of workers in these factories, relating them to the structurally different context in which they find themselves. The latter is structured by the varying degree of informality at the workplace as well as by the specific shape it takes in each case. All enterprises feature “path dependent” informal bargaining and underinvestment as cornerstones of their factory regimes, but specific ways in which these common traits are manifested and reactions they elicit from workers range from archaic manufactory attitude at the “new” factory to exit, voice, and loyalty in the mines torn between owners, at the foreign-owned metalworking factory, and at the “native” oligarchic holding, respectively.

The general trend is not towards eliminating informality as a “post-Soviet residue” but rather towards renegotiating it with different outcomes. This unilateral renegotiation of formerly hegemonic informal conventions at and beyond the workplace in favour of dominant groups produces two types of reactions which can be related to the two major“populist” political imaginaries, “pro-Soviet” and “pro-European”. On the global level, the export-dependent, patronalistic “variety of capitalism” characterised by constant tension between the “traditional” norms of moral economy and the austerity-driven formalising “reforms”, used to flourish in the conjuncture of the global commodities boom of the 2000s. The hegemonic crisis it is currently muddling through is part and parcel of the profitability crisis which has struck global capitalism since the last decade.

Learn more here.