Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics

Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics

Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics

Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics


The Soviet Union created a unique form of urban modernity, developing institutions of social provisioning for hundreds of millions of people in small and medium-sized industrial cities spread across a vast territory. After the collapse of socialism these institutions were profoundly shaken--casualties, in the eyes of many observers, of market-oriented reforms associated with neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus. In Post-Soviet Social, Stephen Collier examines reform in Russia beyond the Washington Consensus. He turns attention from the noisy battles over stabilization and privatization during the 1990s to subsequent reforms that grapple with the mundane details of pipes, wires, bureaucratic routines, and budgetary formulas that made up the Soviet social state.

Drawing on Michel Foucault's lectures from the late 1970s, Post-Soviet Social uses the Russian case to examine neoliberalism as a central form of political rationality in contemporary societies. The book's basic finding--that neoliberal reforms provide a justification for redistribution and social welfare, and may work to preserve the norms and forms of social modernity--lays the groundwork for a critical revision of conventional understandings of these topics.


What would need to be studied now… is the way in which
the specific problems of life and population were raised
within a technology of government which, without always
having been liberal… was always haunted since the end of
the eighteenth century by liberalism’s question.

—Michel Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics

In 1994, JEFFERY SACHS DELIVERED an address on Russia to the World Bank’s annual conference on development economics. Sachs was, at the time, an important voice in U.S. discussions about Russia; a commenter on his paper called him the world’s leading advisor to countries “seeking to make the transition from socialism to markets” (Williamson 1994: 81). After a turbulent first few years—marked by progress in privatization and liberalization, but limited success in stabilization and persistent economic decline—the project of “transition” seemed to be at a crossroads, having barely staggered through a series of crises that included the shelling of the Russian Parliament in 1993. Characteristically, Sachs did not waver in his advice or outlook; despite the difficulties, he saw an opening. In conditions of state breakdown, with opposition disorganized and the risk of social chaos acute, it remained “possible for a small group of policymakers, backed by international support, to begin stabilization” (Sachs 1994: 72). The road ahead required renewed focus on “structural adjustment,” which he defined in an article published two years later as the “initial reallocation of resources in the economy following the introduction of market forces” (Sachs 1996: 128).

Sachs’s vision of post-Soviet transformation was laid out in the language of what Karl Polanyi—in a discussion that is seminal in economic anthropology—called “formal economics,” which referred to problems of efficiency in a “definite situation of choice,” paradigmatically, a market (Polanyi 1977). But this vision of structural adjustment also had profound implications for what Polanyi called the substantive economy that evolved under socialism—the “instituted processes” involved in the material satisfaction of human wants. This substantive economy included the mechanisms of planned production, controlled prices, and collective property, all of which seemed easily dismantled (at least to some observers). But it also included the sedimented products of socialist institutions of industrial coordination, social welfare, and urban planning. The . . .

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