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The first article listed in JRL #84 (4/9/06) has been eating at me for days. When I first read it, I said to myself, “I must comment on this.” But other things got in the way. A few days passed. Yet it continues to eat at me for its utter ridiculousness and ideological vomit. The article in question is “A New Land of Opportunity” by Peter Gumbel of Time Europe Magazine. In a nutshell, Gumbel joins in taking swipes against the French students who protested the Contrat Premier Embauche or first-job contract law. The French law would have allowed youths under 26 years of age to be summarily fired, for no reason by virtue of their age. The law was discriminatory because it essentially gave French youths no job security. French youths were correct to stand against it. That said, the issue in France is a complex one and I don’t profess to understand all its nuances. For a good analysis of it and why the students won see Doug Ireland’s comment.
What I couldn’t understand about all of this is the vehemence of many news reports and commentators on this issue. As Ireland points out, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting did a study outlining much of the poison spit onto the pages and screens by American journalists.
The only reason why I mention the French case here is because Gumbel uses Russia as a means to heap more scorn on French youths. His tactic is an old one. Charge the French youth with privilege, laziness, and shame because if you look at their Russian counterparts things are much worse and you don’t see them complaining. No, what you have is good old Puritan work ethic and the American Dream russified. Gumbel writes:
There is zero job security in Yekaterinburg. France has a plethora of long-term, short-term, temporary and limited work contracts that are at the heart of the current dispute. Russia in theory has a civil code that lays down workers’ rights, but in practice you get hired the same way you get fired, at the snap of a finger. Pr?carit?, the word that brings millions of young French people out into the streets, is the norm there. Forget about a pension big enough to retire on—you have 40 years to figure that out. Health care is more problematic, since getting sick puts you on the fast track to poverty. If you’re unlucky, your employer runs out of money to pay you. If you’re really unlucky, you get caught in the middle of an extortion racket. But if it all works out—as it increasingly does—you get to shape your own future in a way French kids would envy.
First of all, there’s plenty of work. Youth unemployment is about 23% in France, and almost 1 in 10 school leavers does not have a permanent job five years after taking the baccalaureate. In Yekaterinburg, being out of work is a luxury few can afford. The demand for energetic young people is so high that ads for the best jobs scroll along the bottom of prime-time programs on local TV. A free newspaper with job openings, the Urals Work Weekly, would be as thick as the yellow pages if such a phone book existed. Russia hasn’t yet discovered equal opportunity laws, so most jobs stipulate that only those under 30 or 35 need apply. Then there’s the range of opportunity. Want to become a sushi chef, a marketing consultant or a bank manager? No problem. No previous experience required. Nobody else in the country knows how to do those jobs either. Or why not set up your own business? There’s no shortage of people willing to lend you money. (But watch out for those extortionists.)
To quote South Park’s Mrs. Broflovski, “Wha-Wha-What?!” You mean French youths should work for shit just so they can have employment? Aren’t the work conditions that you find in Yekaterinburg what the French are trying to prevent? I personally don’t see any glory, let alone nobility, in exploitation. But let’s forget that and focus on the idyllic picture Gumbel is painting about labor in Russia. He seems to think that “opportunity”, an ideological construct for sure, somehow translates into material well being. He also forgets that the good jobs in Russia are also dependent upon having connections. So if you want to be an investment banker without any experience, you better have good connections to get that job. But according to Gumbel, a job’s a job and people shouldn’t complain because after all they could be unemployed. As he writes in relation to one Tatiana Bildyug, a former accountant at a uranium factory cum “development director” at a shopping mall. “The pay’s not much better, but the job is a lot more dynamic and fun, she says.”
In all, French youths need to remember: “You don’t go hungry if you’re unemployed” like the Russians. And do you know why Peter? It’s not by the good graces of the capitalists. It’s because the French flood the streets to protect their existing rights.
Of course you can have a good piece of right wing, pro-capitalist trash without conjuring the C-word. “It could all go wrong [for Russian youths], of course. Even if it does, Yekaterinburg’s youngsters are unlikely to copy the French and stage rallies demanding that the government provide long-term job security. Russians have already been there and done that. It was called communism, and after 74 years of failing to make it work, they dumped it.” Since many Gumbel’s subjects were five years old in 1991, I don’t see how they can “dump” what they didn’t know. I never met many five year old revolutionaries. Gumbel’s point however is more threatening. In his formulation any attempt by working people to fight for their financial well being, something that the business leaders he so admires does everyday through legal and extra-legal means, amounts to “communism.”
Thankfully, the Moscow News has given us an idea of what the labor situation in Russia is like.
There are about 3000 recruiting agency and job sites on the RuNet (Russian Internet). Even a cursory check shows that employers prefer to hire people under age 35, ethnic Russians, and ready to work for low wages. In other words, contrary to the Constitution, there is severe segregation or discrimination by age and ethnicity on the labor market. Also, there is more and more discrimination on the grounds of ideology – corporate ideology, that is: e.g., no employment for specialists who have worked for competing companies. Meanwhile, people over 35 (incidentally, no longer active reservists of the Armed Forces) have to live not according to the laws or the Labor Code, but survive according to criminal or semi-criminal laws that prevail on the labor market. Furthermore, since law enforcement agencies invariably turn a blind eye to the situation, this segregation can be seen as a form of state policy on the labor market. It is essential to note that such practices are nonexistent in developed countries. Should someone in New York or London or Montreal or Berlin post an ad saying, e.g., “Wanted: an engineer, age 22 to 30,” the prosecutor will, first of all, take a very close look at the site or the newspaper where the ad has been published (a big fine will be imposed) and will then go for the employer (who will face a long prison sentence).
Like Alabama or Georgia in the past, Russia today has “slave labor.” Not so long ago, two reports on human trafficking and modern-day slavery in Russia were published. One was commissioned by the UN and prepared by a team of Russian experts, while the other came from the State Duma Interagency Working Group. According to these reports, Russia and countries of the former USSR place second, after Southeast Asian nations, in the scale of the slave trade: Up to 1.5 million migrants are working in Russia in conditions “close to slavery.” These are, as a general rule, non-Slavs (also under 35). “Slave labor” is used not only by unlicensed shadow operators in the construction sector or impoverished housing maintenance services, but also by businessmen on the Forbes billionaires list. As a rule, these people work without pay, enough for a cup of soup a day.
There is simply no way that Russia can do without decisive measures on its labor market, e.g., the introduction of the minimum hourly wage, like in the G7 countries, mandatory for all employers, state or private companies, including joint ventures. Seven-and-a-half dollars an hour as in the United States or 4.5 pounds an hour as in the UK may be unrealistic right now, but $1 per hour would be quite realistic to begin with. Incidentally, this measure was recommended by the World Bank. At the same time, failure to pay wages that are due should carry tough penalties for company directors – up to 15 or 20 year terms of imprisonment. As for discrimination on the Russian labor market, there is no need to pass any new laws: The authorities only need to enforce the existing laws. As soon as the authors of “wanted: men only” or “wanted: under 35” or “wanted: company loyalists” ads begin to be prosecuted, everything will immediately fall into place.
Finally, in order to fight unemployment effectively, Russia must end its addiction to oil and use a part of the Stabilization Fund to achieve a breakthrough in the real sector of the economy, which will create new jobs. This is not going to be easy of course as many high ranking officials owe the oil pipeline their fortunes, but it would not hurt to think about the country’s future. As for the demographic situation, the only way out is to legalize migration and simplify procedure for acquisition of citizenship by ethnic Russians – all those who will want to acquire it. But most important, provide living conditions and living standards in which no one would want to leave Russia.
Is this the supposed “land of opportunity” that French youths should be envious of? Of course! Anti-labor commentators like Gumbel relish in such labor conditions, but not because they provide workers with better living and working conditions, pay, dignity, and security. Labor conditions in Russia are optimal because it grantees all these for employers! Low wages, the ability to dispose of labors at will, no enforcement of existing labor laws, weak unions, not to mention slave labor only increase the profit margin. Such is the story of capital and labor and despite the platitudes of Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis and Thatcher’s TINA.
French youths shouldn’t be taking a page from their Yekaterinburg counterparts. On the contrary, Yekaterinburg youths should take a page from their French counterparts and fight for the rights that the Russian Constitution and laws give them.Post Views: 94
“What’s that? Are we getting a bus militia as well?” asks Lyudmila, a 68-year-old Moscow pensioner. Not quite yet, according to a Moscow Times article on the new trial deployment of okhraniki on Moscow buses. Mosgortrans has signed a deal with two private security companies, Fort and Vites-Vak, to “to protect passengers from fake ticket inspectors, troublemakers and shoddily dressed riffraff.” Dressed in imposing black uniforms, the two man teams carry handcuffs and teargas to handle any hooligans that attempt to disrupt the natural order of public transportation. The teargas, however, will only be used in the most dangerous of situations like when a terrorist is on the bus. Well now I feel safe! Though, I never felt afraid riding a Moscow bus. They tend to be so crowded that no one can move to disrupt the ride. But come to think of it, the only people who tended to disrupt anything were the babushki who gave you the laser beam eye, chastised you for bezkulturnost, or just bowled you over as they got on or off the bus.
In addition to nabbing fake ticket inspectors, the okhraniki will also prevent smelly and dirty people from riding the bus. “We tell off people who wear dirty clothes,” says bus okhranik Sergei Tupchenko. “Sometimes workers don’t change their clothes before taking the bus. It is unpleasant for passengers to sit next to someone like that, so we don’t allow them to take the bus.” If they do their job diligently, I expect the Moscow buses to be much emptier over the next ten days.Post Views: 99
“The most intimate reactions of human beings have been so thoroughly reified that the idea of anything specific to themselves now persists only as an utterly abstract notion: personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions. The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.”—Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” (1944).
This passage from Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic essay speaks to the wonders of capitalism: the ability of the system to get people to attach social meaning and influence to consumption. Our identity is so interwoven with what we buy, that our modern global society has created hierarchies where people are measured by what they consume. A truth rings in the saying, “The suit makes the man” that does not point to the freedom of individual expression, but rather to a slavish relation to commodity production and consumption. The suit therefore doesn’t simply make the man, the man is the suit. Our freedom extends so far as we are able to participate in the reproduction of our slavery.
Nothing reveals the truth of capital more than the spectacle it creates in countries where capitalist consumerism is young. Take the recent the article “Go on the ultimate fantasy holiday – by lying in the sun,” from the Times of London. The article chronicles how Muscovites are paying an agency called Perseus Tours for “virtual” vacations. A customer pays not for an actual trip to Peru or China, but for the items that make the trip “real”—photographs, souvenirs, even an itinerary and a storyline. All of this is done in the name of thrift and prestige. The “virtual tours” cost a fraction of the real vacation, but still provides all the same social and cultural capital that comes with actually visiting Peru or China. We in the West may gawk at the ridiculousness of this venture and laugh at the hopeless Russians who knowingly buy into the lie. But does not capital do the same every time we buy into the idea that consuming a product brings us prestige and influence?
“We sell the dream — and with that comes the social status,” says Dmitri Popov the 26-year-old head of Perseus Tours. . . “Status is so important here. If you say you’ve just come back from Brazil or China, people understand that it cost a lot and that you’re an interesting and experienced person.”
The move toward virtual consumption is of course a result of economics. Buying social capital is difficult without economic capital. Thus is the magic of the capitalism system—alternatives are always possible:
Today, however, regular holidays in South East Asia, Western Europe and even farther afield are part of life for Russia’s fledgeling middle class. Nastya is a typical Perseus customer, a 25-year-old events manager in a public relations company, earning ?500 a month.
In September, she bought a two-week “virtual tour” to Peru for ?275, a tenth of the real price. “I wanted to be out of touch,” she says. “And I wanted to make my colleagues think I’d been to Peru because that had been my dream for so long. I’d been telling people for the last year that I was going there. It was a status thing.”
She also hoped to impress her fiercely competitive female boss, with whom she had mutual friends in Moscow’s high-rolling social elite.
Perseus provided her with tickets, a storyline and photographs of her in Lima, the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco and the ruined citadel of Macchu Pichu.
And they gave her souvenirs, including Peruvian clothes, jewellery, posters, a carved wooden chess set and some pan-pipes. All she had to do was memorise the storyline, head to the family dacha for two weeks, and book a couple of sessions on the sunbed.
When she returned, friends and colleagues thronged to hear about her adventures. It may have been coincidence, but within a few weeks her boss gave her a pay rise of ?165 a month.
Now Nastya is contemplating a “trip” to China or Japan. “I know it’s lying, but it’s not a serious lie,” she says. “It’s like buying a Prada bag, only a fake one.”
There is a darker side to the business. One client cut her own arm to authenticate an imaginary piranha hunt on the Amazon, Mr. Popov says.
One can witness the buying of fake Prada bags in downtown Los Angeles. The boutiques, malls, and shops are littered with “Nastyas”. This globalized phenomenon to consume the products that give one the status of elite makes Marx’s prophetic words in the Communist Manifesto a hard reality:
“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.” [Emphasis mine].Post Views: 132