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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
13 August 2022: Thoughts on political contingency, plus texts and tunes
When I started the TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup three weeks ago, I think I intended it to be a bit of light reading — and then spent two weeks ruminating on the politics of collective responsibility and the futility of diplomacy. Oops.
I’m heading to the beach this weekend, in a vain effort to stave off the start of the new school year. You’d think that would lend itself to a bit of levity, but you’d be wrong. Sorry about that: all I’ve got this week is a deep-ish dive into sociological theory about how people react to political crisis. Maybe next week’s disposition will be sunnier.
What I’m thinking about
The debate about whether or not Russian citizens should be allowed to travel to Europe — which is, at its core, a debate about whether all Russians should be held indiscriminately accountable at least in some small way for the indiscriminate crimes of their government — is not going away. At this point, just about every academic, pundit, journalist, activist and Twitter hack in the Russia-adjacent space has taken a stand, as, of course, have I. I won’t weigh in on it again, though. At least, not right now.
Nonetheless, I’ve been struck this week by the degree to which most of the arguments in favor of banning EU visas for Russians turn on the alleged lack of meaningful anti-war mobilization among Russians at home or in the growing diaspora. The word ‘meaningful’ is doing a lot of work in that sentence, of course. There are a great many Russians who oppose the war, including at least 15,000 who have done jail time for that opposition, and a great many more who are actively working to support Ukrainian refugees. Independent Russian journalists continue to take great risks to report on the war, without whom we would know very little about how the Russian military is actually performing. I could go on, but nothing I can say would change the fact that none of this activism and journalism is even remotely challenging the Kremlin’s ability to prosecute its war.
It’s tempting to see this as a moral failure, and thus to punish Russians for not living up to their moral obligations. (If morality is a categorical imperative, then our own moral failures are irrelevant.) I explained last week why I think that’s a mistake, in large measure with reference to the concept of uncertainty:
Russian society is the aggregate of millions of individuals making millions of individual decisions, all without knowing how others around them will react. For the actions and beliefs of millions of Russians to change, millions of individuals will have to take the risk of embarking on individual change. They will do so alone. Indeed, Russians are going to jail every day for doing so — alone.
With that in mind, I went back this week to sociological theory, and specifically to a five-year-old debate between Ivan Ermakoff, a French sociologist best known for his work on the theory of contingency, and Randall Collins, the eminent American sociologist best known for his phenomenology of violence and emotion. Bear with me for a moment.
Most social science is built on the assumption of “linear causality”: in other words, the relationship between cause and effect is more or less inescapable. For example, an individual with a given set of resources and preferences will more or less inescapably adjust her or his consumption patterns if prices increase. For many phenomena, and maybe even most, that approach works well. But it falls apart when people look to one another for cues about how to behave.
Imagine a situation in which something potentially momentous seems to be happening: a law is being passed that restricts your rights, for example. You personally may be upset by this. You may even feel moved to act. But you are aware that action may involve risk, and you have no way of knowing whether it will succeed in overturning the law. What you do know is that the only way to overturn the law is if a large number of other people not only share your view of the law, but decide to act together with you. Your decision on whether to act is thus contingent on your reading of other people’s likelihood of making the same decision at the same time. Those people’s decisions are similarly contingent on their ability to read other people’s intentions — including yours. And the outcome of the whole thing is contingent on the contingent decisions that individuals are making in a context rife with uncertainty.
In such situations — contingent situations — Ermakoff argues that uncertainty itself becomes part of the chain of cause and effect. Uncertainty (or, more precisely, indeterminacy) drives people to look for signals and cues, as they try to figure out how to behave, while the basic human desire to reduce uncertainty simultaneously encourages people to flock together and to hedge their risks. As Ermakoff writes:
The members of a group seek to align their behavioral stance with another’s by tacitly coordinating their expectations about themselves. The process implies a reflective mode of experience: actors try to assess the future knowing that this assessment will be inconsequential if it is at odds with the other group members’ expectations. Coordination takes place through this inference process.
What that means for the future of the Russian anti-war movement — or lack thereof — depends on whether you think that contingency resolves itself through emotion, or through cognition. Collins argues for the former. Conflict, he writes, is fundamentally a question of emotional domination: whichever group establishes its emotional dominance over the other wins. In this view, the key future of the Russian anti-war movement lies outside the movement itself. As long as it feels like the Kremlin is winning, members of the movement will be unable to coordinate their actions and the movement will continue to fail. If the Kremlin faces some unexpected loss, the shift in emotion can carry the movement to victory. (I’m simplifying here. For the full story, read Collins’s book, Violence.)
Ermakoff argues the opposite. In his view, dynamics within the group — in our case, the ability of members of the Russian opposition to overcome their atomization, to learn to read one another’s intentions better, and thus the chains of events that might be set off by influential individuals within the movements — can themselves create revolutionary consequences: his is a theory of “‘small’ causes yielding ‘big’ effects.” (Again, I’m simplifying. For more, see his book, Ruling Oneself Out.)
Which one is right? I haven’t a clue.
What I’m reading
My dive into sociological theory this week was motivated in large measure by two excellent — if heartbreakingly depressing — reports from some of the independent journalists I mentioned earlier. The first, published Wednesday by The Insider, was a glimpse into a trove of leaked emails sent to Russia’s military prosecutors by the aggrieved loved ones of fallen soldiers. Complaints run the gamut, from conscripts being illegally sent to the front, to morgues refusing to release remains and coverups of botched operations. “Don’t treat our children like dogs” is the money quote.
The anger at the authorities is similarly palpable in a piece by Mediazona’s Alla Konstantinova on Thursday. Konstantinova lays bare both the raw tragedy that Putin’s aggression and unaccountability have wrought on countless Russian families — and those families’ steadfast refusal to turn that tragedy into a search for justice. Her exploration of the differences between responses to this war and responses to the Chechen wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, the first of which gave rise to the once powerful Soldiers’ Mothers movement, is both devastating and thought provoking. In fact, it was that comparison that sent me scurrying back to Ermakoff and Collins.
My eye was also caught by a piece by Michael Chan, Jingjing Yi and Dmitry Kuznetsov in The International Journal of Press/Politics on the impact of censorship and online surveillance on political engagement. As is often the case in studies of the real world, the results are maddeningly mixed, but still interesting at least in this finding: while censorship depresses all measures of online and offline participation, surveillance has the opposite effect.
Finally, if you’re following the Brittney Griner case — and even if you aren’t — take a look at Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan’s latest for CEPA, in which they argue that Moscow is likely to build up a new stock of Western prisoners for bargaining purposes. More good news, in other words.
What I’m listening to
To be frank, there’s only so much North Carolina music I can listen to, and I found myself needing a bit more snark and a heavier beat to get me through the week. Yard Act, a fun new post-punk group from Leeds, did the trick — and made me homesick for Britain (though not, I admit, for Leeds).
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