Time of the Strikebreakers

The following is a fascinating article titled “Time of the Strikebreakers” by Oleg Aronson published in the Russian edition of the Index on Censorship. Aronson argues that the biopolitical nature of contemporary Russian politics has turned democracy into a limit rather than a means of political action. This rendering of democracy has made revolt the only politically viable negation of the state’s biopolitical grip. As he writes, “life itself uses revolt to falsify politics, to point out the falsity of its claims.” The philosophical echoes of Negri, Agamben, Foucault, and Deleuze in Aronson’s treatise brings an fresh analysis of present Russian political condition.

Aronson is a kandidat in philosophy and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy and the Russian Anthropology School. He is the author of many articles on contemporary philosophy, film theory, and mass media. His most recent books are Bogema: opyt soobshchestva (2002) and Metakino (2003).

Thomas Campbell provided the English translation. Campbell is the author of many articles on Russian film in the journal KinoKultura and currently serves as the English language editor of The Contemporary Art in Russia newsletter.

Because of the article’s length, I provide an excerpt with a link to a complete .pdf version.

Oleg Aronson
Time of the Strikebreakers

Index on Censorship (Russian edition), 26 (2007)

It is difficult to write about Putin’s Russia, something one does reluctantly. One hesitates to use the word Putin because by this act alone you intrude into the political arena, where your least utterance doesn’t remain mere hot air but can also turn on you and make you regret what you’d said. Such regret doesn’t arise because you were wrong or unfair, or because you were misinterpreted, but because your words are always addressed not to those who listen, but rather to those who eavesdrop. Some might be inclined to detect paranoia in this last phrase, to interpret it in the light of conspiracy theory, the “rise of the secret services,” or something of the sort. I have in mind something else, however: the specific shift in Russian political sensibility that has taken place before our eyes. A hypersurplus of mutually repetitive utterances has now been stockpiled, and their lack of content underwrites their existence in the mediaverse. It is simply impossible to listen to them any longer, just as listening itself has become a chore.

It is not so much the political situation (in which power, capital, and the mass media are concentrated in one and the same hands) that I would like to discuss, as it is the “nonpolitical” situation. When we examine the zone of the nonpolitical, the lifeworld of the ordinary man, however, politics is, all the same, one of the conditions that shape it. Politics has long since ceased being something in which people take part; instead, it has become something that shapes people. It has ceased being a clash of parties, social groups, views, and convictions; it has ceased being a concern only of the state and its institutions. Politics courses through our bodies—bodies that vote, work, watch TV, sit in cafés, smoke cigarettes, sleep, die, etc. Politics has long ago become biopolitics. This is not news. It is always the time you live in that is the news.

It is this that makes us speak out today: this strange time that we didn’t anticipate and where we find ourselves now. One struggles to find a precise description for this time. Or even an imprecise description, one that would nevertheless capture the situation of the time. In our case, defining even a few of the situation’s peculiarities means giving a chance to the absolutely mute, feeble forces of the nonpolitical. It means revealing the possibility of another politics—not a politics devised by the political scientists and political operatives, but one that grows out of the life of society itself. In our time it is extremely hard to imagine such a thing. For a start, however, it would be good to describe this “strange” time in some way. When does it begin? In what sense is it strange?

We would be mistaken to think that the time of this new political sensibility begins with the rise to power of the new politicians. Their rise is a symptom, rather. Many still remember (although the mass media have done everything they can to make us forget) Gorbachev’s perestroika and the first years of the Yeltsin administration. It was a romantic period, when the experience of democracy became part of our lives. And it was precisely because this experience was new that the very idea of democracy itself was perceived romantically. Ours was an anarchic democracy, one without the institutions that democracy depends on. In this sense it was a popular democracy independently of the fact that a significant part of the population might not have supported it. In turn, the spontaneity and popular character of the democracy in the late eighties and early nineties might not have manifested themselves had not revolt become a vital necessity in Soviet times (especially during the Brezhnev years).

I consciously use the word revolt here, rather than “resistance” or “social change,” because the latter were the bailiwick only of society’s politically active members. Revolt, on the contrary, is always nonpolitical in nature: it springs from life itself, not from its political realities. Revolt is born of hunger and fear, of humiliation and injustice that exceed the individual and thus become social phenomena. Revolt is a resistance of bodies that marks the limits of biopolitics.

Download a complete .pdf version.