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Workfare, post-Soviet austerity and the ethics of freedom

This book is an ethnography of politics of waiting in the contemporary austerity state. While the global political economy is usually imagined through metaphors of acceleration and speed, this book reveals waiting as the shadow temporality of the contemporary logics of governance. The ethnographic site for this analysis is a state-run unemployment office in Latvia. This site not only grants the author unique access to observing everyday implementation of social assistance programmes that use acceleration and waiting as forms of control but also serves as a vantage point from which to compare Western and post-Soviet workfare policy designs. The book thus contributes to current debates across sociology and anthropology on the increasingly coercive forms of social control by examining ethnographically forms of statecraft that have emerged in the aftermath of several decades of neoliberalism. The ethnographic perspective reveals how time shapes a nation’s identity as well as one’s sense of self and ordinary ethics in culturally specific ways. The book traces how both the Soviet past, with its narratives of building communism at an accelerated speed while waiting patiently for a better future, as well as the post-Soviet nationalist narratives of waiting as a sacrifice for freedom come to play a role in this particular case of the politics of waiting.

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The Introductory chapter situates this ethnographic study within recent debates in sociology and anthropology on statecraft in the aftermath of neoliberalism, on the temporalities of the global political economy, and on bare life and ordinary life as conceptual lenses. The chapter carves out a conceptual space for recognising both politics and ethics that underpin the contemporary austerity state and introduces the post-Soviet Latvian case as particularly apt for pursuing such an analytical approach. It presents the two central arguments of the book, outlines the materials and methods used, and provides a summary of the chapters to follow.

in Politics of waiting

Chapter 1 begins the tracing of the politics of waiting in post-Soviet austerity state by situating it historically. It reveals how a particular perception of time played a role as an organising logic in the two waves of austerity in post-1991 Latvia, transforming welfare policies and the state-citizen relationship, and argues that the particularly harsh form of austerity politics as a way of tackling the 2008 economic crisis was possible because it was relying upon a familiar temporal framework of living in a delayed time. The chapter traces the temporal narratives of acceleration and patient waiting for communism in the Soviet Latvia and the similar temporality of ‘catching up with Europe’ in the post-Soviet state. The analysis in this chapter thus establishes waiting as one of the main discursive and temporal frames that necessitated, legitimated and shaped the neoliberal welfare state reconfigurations in post-Soviet Latvia.

in Politics of waiting

Chapter 2 shows ethnographically how the politics of waiting played out in Latvia after the 2008 economic crisis. From the vantage point of the Riga unemployment office, it examines how the two temporalities - of activation and waiting – were both produced by the austerity state. The ethnographic analysis demonstrates how the disciplinary austerity state stigmatised lack of activity as a Soviet remnant but at the same time imposed various kinds of waiting on the social groups that were most affected by the crisis and the austerity. As the welfare policies were being reconfigured as psychological activation and workfare programmes, many of the most vulnerable individuals in society were kept in a limbo.

in Politics of waiting
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Rather than thinking of waiting only as a form of discipline, Chapter 3 takes a closer look at the figure of ‘the waiting subject’ by engaging with the narratives of three unemployed Latvians. The informants’ narratives reveal how the bond with the state, made visible through language, is more complex than the rhetoric of waiting recognises. By listening to how ordinary individuals talk about the state and themselves, the analysis probes the kinds of intimate tyrannies that link the subject and the state in the post-Soviet, post-totalitarian context. By examining how these intimate bonds tying individuals to the state become a target of questioning and anxiety, we also gain an insight into the ways in which the austerity state is being legitimised.

in Politics of waiting
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Chapter shifts the focus from forms of state control and discipline and zooms in on the ways in which the trainers who ran one of the activation programmes at the Latvian unemployment office understood their work. Conversations with four trainers reveal how they had shaped themselves as entrepreneurial and resilient subjects in the post-1991 neoliberal state, but also how they linked the ideas of ‘willingness to work on oneself’ and of ‘taking responsibility’ to the exercise of freedom that was the promise of the post-1991 Latvian state project. This chapter thus starts developing an alternative analytical language for exploring the concepts of ‘will’, ‘responsibility’, and ‘having a good life’ as they figure in the trainers’ narratives. It explores how they figure in ways that may be disciplinary but also work as an ethical discourse

in Politics of waiting

Chapter 5 shows how the time of waiting can be reclaimed for meaningful ethical projects and connecting with others. Ethnographic vignettes reveal how seminars were often turned into a space for ethical self-transformation that was driven by a desire to carve out a dignified life for oneself even – and especially – when the present provided little security. This initially singularly neoliberal space thus had the potential to be turned into pluralistic spaces of conviviality, self-exploration, and conversation. Thus, rather than seeing these seminars simply as a form of workfare, one of the myriad of mobile neoliberal technologies that move across the world and are appropriated in particular ways in particular places, the chapter traces how ordinary Latvians appropriated them as a contemporary expression in the long lineage of technologies of the self.

in Politics of waiting
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Waiting for freedom

The Epilogue talks about freedom as a category without which we cannot successfully theorise the social reality. I consider how categories like democracy, freedom, and justice have become ‘compromised categories’ (Hemment 2015: 34) not only in former socialist societies but in social theory as well. And yet, as the ethnographic analysis presented in this book shows, the Latvian politics of waiting, produced by the austerity state, can only be understood if we recognise how this waiting has been offered as a sacrifice for freedom.

in Politics of waiting