Politics in Color and Concrete and Along the Bolivian Highway

Krisztina Fehérváry’s Politics in Color and Concrete and Miriam Shakow’s Along the Bolivian Highway both contribute, in very different ways, to the still rather incipient anthropology of middle classes and, in particular, new middle classes.  Both authors focus on the politics that inflect and grow out of these groups’ quandaries of status and how their forms of personal and collective self-definition (or, in Shakow’s case, lack of them) are bound to transformations in the national imaginary and struggles over what constitutes proper citizenship.  Neither case is what one might call typical.  Rather, these are novel social formations scrambling to find their feet on rapidly shifting terrain: post-socialist Hungary in the 1990s and Bolivia in the mid-2000s, just as a socialist inspired project was coming to power.  What counts as middle class in each case is radically contrastive, and the two books together provoke scholars to question what it means politically, around the globe, to call a social formation middle class.

Krisztina Fehérváry’s richly detailed historical anthropology of the materialities of state socialist and then post-socialist homes takes a close look at everything from the construction and distribution of housing, layout and home décor, consumer goods, shopping practices and store displays, to the nitty-gritties of cement, plastic, wood, wool, and, finally, such post-socialist excesses as high-tech thatching marketed as natural.  The chapters trace how the qualities of objects, furnishings, spaces, and building materials were valued and revalued across a series of “aesthetic regimes” (pp. 3-6) dating back to the beginnings of Hungary’s socialist period in the aftermath of World War II.  Focusing on the model socialist city of Dunaújváros, Fehérváry shows how these aesthetic regimes were at once connected to explicit state policies and theories about the role of material life in social transformation, and to the everyday experience of these materialities as intensely political.  The continuities and contrasts that obtain across aesthetic regimes, as subjects built upon or reacted to their values pivot around the home because of the peculiar significance this space took on during the Soviet period.  For the state, it was a key ideological site commanding intense investments, while for citizens, it became all the more important since private property was reduced to it.  Gradually, they too came to treat it as a site for inordinate affective and economic investments (to the anthropologist’s initially uncomprehending eye).  It is only out of this process, Fehérvary argues, that the aspirations and anxieties of the new post-socialist middle class in Hungary – and its ability to set a new standard – can be understood.

As materialities emerged at the crux of struggles over what political subjectivities should and could look like, they also acquired expanded communicative potentials.  Not too far into the socialist period, for instance, people began to see cheaply-made goods and housing as reflecting the state’s low opinion of them.   That is, the processes of signification that worked through them were not restricted to proclamations of self, as middle-class consumption is usually understood. But Fehérváry shows this was only due,to an earlier Socialist Realist moment in which the state used quality materials to convey to the working classes, in material idioms familiar from earlier bourgeois styles, their newly elevated status.  Similarly, the free-standing country home that became emblematic of middle-class status in the 1990s stood as an icon of the family that inhabited it: detached, autonomous, and made of durable quality materials, at once natural and modern.  What Fehérváry comes back to again and again, then, are the qualia of the material world as these are picked out as iconic of different types of people.  This was as true of the middle class that rose to pre-eminent political legitimacy in the 1990s as it was of the proletariat that was concomitantly stigmatized: as gray and weak as the crumbling cement that for many synthesized socialism itself.

Thus when Fehérváry asserts that materialities “actively contributed” (p. 158) to the formation of political subjectivities, dispositions, and even new ideologies, this is thanks not just to the constraints the material world can impose, but to broad semiotic practices of drawing iconic correlations between people and the materialities with which they are associated.  These practices, though, only become so intuitive and widespread through a historical valorization of materiality, a process Fehérváry traces back to the split between Stalin, who saw art and architecture as superstructural, and the modernists who saw them as socially transformative.  As she notes, “the socialist state prioritized the material project of becoming modern” (p. 238) over other modes of doing so; it cultivated “attentiveness to the qualities of material goods and environments that were equated with human value.”  (p. 238) Socialism’s political promises were embedded in socialist materialities in such a way that – and this is Fehérváry’s main historical argument – a consumer class not only emerged under socialism, but went on to live out in the neoliberal 1990s what began as socialist dreams.  The embrace of capitalism, as well as the all-too-quick disillusionment with it, came straight out of the ways in which the socialist state had long undermined its own project by fomenting igényes (demanding or discerning) consumers who then felt stymied in their efforts to inhabit a Western-style, middle-class modernity—to inhabit lifestyles, that is, that even under socialism were already perceived not just as desirable but as putatively normal.

In chapter 1, Fehérváry reviews several local frameworks for evaluating the material environment that reappear throughout the book; she then provides four chapters tracing evolving aesthetic regimes under socialism.  Besides her meticulous archivalwork, Fehérváry is aided in this project by her personal experience in Hungary dating back to childhood visits in the 1970s, experience that is invaluable in grasping the nuances of Hungarians’ lived relation to material forms.  The last three chapters focus on the 1990s.  They give ethnographic flesh to her strongest statement of the larger political stakes of her project: “The dream of a universal middle class […] died with state socialism”  (p. 22).  Now the only options are “so-called First World standards” or, if one cannot live up to these, “the denigrated state of a Third World underclass of people that do not count as full-fledged citizens.” (p. 22)

Shakow’s book provides an illuminating comparison for thinking through this declaration.  If the new middle class of Hungary’s 1990s consisted emblematically of those with the means to build their (often quite ostentatious) dream house in the country, the new middle class of the small Bolivian municipality of Sacaba looks impoverished in comparison: possibilities for consumption are radically reduced.  Bare cement floors are an index of wealth, and even professionals may emphatically identify as peasants.  Many are involved in the agrarian unions of the Chapare, where almost all the families Shakow describes made their money growing coca.  By the mid-2000s, the period Shakow focuses on, Bolivia was caught up in a socialist project (the Movimiento al Socialismo or Movement Toward Socialism; henceforth MAS) the identity politics of which left little room for these people’s projects of upward mobility.  Indeed, the most basic ethnographic fact in Shakow’s portrait of her interlocutors’ effects on Bolivian political culture – effects she argues are profound – is the lack of any term to designate them, draw them together as a self-conscious group, and legitimate their upward mobility.

In the first chapters, Shakow shows her interlocutors wavering between self-identification as peasants, poor, or otherwise subaltern, and the defense of elite positions, such as the rejection of property redistribution.  Such wavering permeates even the most intimate relationships, often turning not just classist but deeply racist.  As Shakow moves into an analysis of the response to Evo Morales and the MAS, these wavering identifications reveal a deeper tension between what Shakow calls “superiority” and “egalitarianism” (pp. 23, 45-48, 56-63, 74-75, 88, 97, 102).  Both are cultural values: according to Shakow, superiority encourages upward mobility while egalitarianism promotes staying on a par with one’s peers.  The final chapters examine how this clash of values plays out in local debates on clientelism and community.  Both discourses are self-flagellating.  While clientelism is intensely stigmatized, Shakow maintains, it remains one of the only available paths for upward mobility; mention of the word community likewise triggers laments over how townspeople fail to pull together.  In both cases, Shakow finds a poor fit between political models (liberalism and grassroots democracy in the case of clientelism; peasant communities charged with development versus politicized agrarian unions in the case of community) and reality.

Along the Bolivian Highway pays close attention to the small social dramas in which Sacabans struggle to define themselves and defend the morality of their social position.  From family tensions around marrying up or down to disputes that erupt in public meetings, from fleeting remarks to long-term individual trajectories, Shakow draws on extensive fieldwork to illuminate the tensions of occupying social ground neither clearly subaltern nor elite, and the larger political dynamics that come of negotiating that status.  Though she does not frame the book this way, it is thus largely an ethnography of discursive categories, and Shakow carefully tracks their shifting use from one context to another.  She comes closest to making this ethnographic focus explicit in Chapter 4, which she notes is not an ethnography of clientelism but of accusations of clientelism.  Shakow argues these accusations constitute strategic claims to morality, and shows the dire political consequences they can have where competition for government controlled resources is stiff.  Indeed, competition for resources (mainly, party-allocated jobs) is behind the fraught nature of identity positioning in general, for under the MAS, subaltern status became a requisite for political legitimacy.  Given this, one wonders if this kind of identity claim can ever be entirely unambiguous.  Shakow repeatedly recognizes that political discourse must skip fine-tuned distinctions in order to interpellate broad audiences..  But she nonetheless calls emphatically for recognition of the middle classes and acceptance of the self-interest driving their upward mobility from scholars and from Bolivians.  The reason for her call is the political strife she attributes to this discursive hole.

Shakow simultaneously opens other avenues of thought for grappling with the same issue.  She emphasizes, for instance, how talk of clientelism is often talk of envy.  Given the anthropological literature on envy, one wonders if this is not an older discourse that has merged with the liberal denigration of clientelism.  Accusations of clientelism might then appear much more rooted as a social dynamic, and the divisiveness these accusations foment might not be so easily dispelled as Shakow hopes when she calls for Bolivians to recognize that self-interest is a natural fact of life, “impossible to expunge from human society.” (p. 121)  More importantly, the central tension between superiority and egalitarianism may not represent such a deep clash.  Salir adelante and superarse (to get ahead and improve oneself) are both local ideals Shakow glosses in terms of a moral imperative towards superiority.  Yet, elsewhere in Latin America, these terms can refer primarily to one’s own trajectory and not necessarily to getting ahead of or being superior to others.  Personal benefit need not be conceptually opposed to the general improvement of the country—the bettering of one’s own lot could be the very index of collective bettering.  In this sense, Shakow’s interlocutors may not be as inconsistent as she insists.

This point brings me back to Fehérváry’s statement, “The dream of a universal middle class […] died with state socialism.”  If state socialism did represent such a dream, though, it did not do so via a language of middle-class-ness.  In Hungary, the term “middle class” has served to legitimate new and bewilderingly drastic social inequalities.  Such legitimation is perhaps inherent to the term, suggesting as it does social hierarchy.  If the term is absent in Sacaba, this may have more than a little to do with the fact equality remains such a strong value.  The buen vivir of Bolivian socialism is not the First World “good life” (pp. 70, 78, 251) Fehérváry references—it is not a project for a middle class that would be in the middle, but for one that would be, to use her term, universal.  In this sense, the political turmoil Shakow worries is jeopardizing the socialist project might be seen in more positive light, in the sense that it indicates inequality has not been normalized.  To naturalize self-interest and the desire for status runs the risk of conflating the legitimation of economic betterment and that of social inequality.  The danger here is in replicating neoliberal discourses that in recent years have seized on the idea that Latin America is full of emergent middle classes, new consumers, and dedicated entrepreneurs who will finally put the region squarely within the purview of capitalist liberal democracy.  Sacaba’s new middle class is only such in a sociological sense, as an assortment of people whose means have put them above the level of the subaltern.  But as Fehérváry compellingly shows, it is the middle class as an ideological formation, a normative model in wide circulation, that has the most potent and devastating social effects.  Shakow’s Sacabans have not, apparently, been interpellated by this norm, and perhaps that is, after all, a good thing.

Rihan Yeh, El Colegio de Michoacán

Fehérváry, Krizstina. 2013. Politics in Color and Concrete: Socialist Materialities and the Middle Class in Hungary. Indiana University Press. Read More at Indiana University Press.

Shakow, Miriam. 2014. Along the Bolivian Highway: Social Mobility and Political Culture in a New Middle Class. University of Pennsylvania Press. Read More at University of Pennsylvania Press.

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