Living in a dictatorship

An original ethnological approach allows us to understand the spaces of freedom and solidarity that citizens create for themselves in the countryside of Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe. But this does not happen without certain accommodations.

While dictatorships and authoritarianisms are most of the time studied from the institutions and leaders who establish them, Ronan Hervouet’s book on the authoritarian regime of Belarus is welcome to remind us that these regimes do not exist in a relationship to the exclusively repressive and restrictive population. The anthropological reality of these regimes is quite different and suggests a wide range of relationships with the authoritarian system made up of adaptation, support, avoidance, or diversion (not even to mention resistance).

A “dotted ethnography”

After others, Ronan Hervouet reminds us that a political system, even authoritarian, cannot survive without a certain dose of consent, or at least tolerance or habit. Which does not mean that there are peoples or social groups in whose genetic heritage authoritarianism is inscribed.

This is why the main criticism that can be made of the work is undoubtedly its title, which the author himself calls into question in the heart of the text where he goes well beyond these stereotypical all-encompassing conceptualizations. . No, there is no “taste” for tyrants, which would necessarily be a “bad taste” à la Pierre Bourdieu. The explanation of the acceptance of such a regime requires looking at what is happening deep within social reality.

This is precisely the challenge taken up by Ronan Hervouet, who invites us to “dive into the daily life of the last dictatorship in Europe”. And this is what makes the work so rich and interesting, teeming with colorful details and highly edifying stories. The first thing to say about this book is that it reads like a novel, that of the lives of certain people chosen somewhat at random from the author’s wanderings, but whose life experiences, linked to each other and interpreted with finesse, make sense and shed new light on the complex social reality of authoritarianism.

One of the most delightful and instructive chapters of the work is the second, in which the author presents, with humility and sincerity, his investigation methodology, which he calls a “dotted ethnography”. These few pages should absolutely be read by all apprentice sociologists and anthropologists, and well beyond, in that they provide proven and commented “tricks” for carrying out surveys in environments (popular here) or countries (the Belarus) often not easily accessible to investigators.

It has been demonstrated that, despite the lack of resources and institutional support, inventiveness, resourcefulness, but also determination and attention to detail as well as the ability to listen can, in expert hands, work miracles. and produce original knowledge, thanks to subtle connections, a long-term investigation and multiple returns to the same people or the same places.

We will be less complimentary about the announced ambition of an ethnography of the daily life of the working classes in general. In fact, the work focuses mainly on the world of the countryside, which Ronan Hervouet knows well, having devoted his thesis to it. This would be the main limitation that I would see in this book: it never specifies that the subject is almost exclusively the rural world and it ventures to generalize observations and arguments to the industrial or urban world, while empirical data is lacking. required.

The absence of the working world is all the more regrettable since the French ethnographic literature mobilized focuses precisely on workers. The strikes and mobilizations of workers of several industrial companies in Belarus against Alexander Lukashenko, during the protest movement against the falsification of the result of the presidential elections of summer 2020, have in any case shown that part of the working world could openly rise against an authoritarian president, despite the risks involved.

As an extension of this criticism, we can also regret the lack of reflection on the authoritarian neoliberal economic logic deployed by the regime, contrary to the way in which the country is often represented, as one of the last countries with an economic socialist. Ronan Hervouet mentions this fact in passing (speaking of Fixed-term contract as a “neoliberal-inspired rule” adopted in 2002, p. 23), but he does not insist and, above all, does not reflect on the weight that neoliberal logic, in particular the generalization of short contracts, places on the popular world, whose capacities for resistance and rights are all the more more restricted.

Conviviality and solidarity

However, the essence of the work is not there, but in the depth of the author’s detailed analysis of the spaces of freedom and solidarity that the actors manage to forge, including by using, legally or not, the resources that the existing system makes available to them or allows them to divert.

The description of the way in which kolkhozes function highlights the sum of interdependencies which make up the flesh of the local system and ensure that everyone, whatever their level in the vertical of power, holds together (or holds together each other) so that everyone can cope more or less correctly (chapter 5, p. 109-125).

This table, as Ronan Hervouet points out, goes against “media and academic discourses (which) emphasize constraint, fear and violence” (p. 124-125). Perhaps it would have been good to also question the inequality linked to the more or less privileged positions that everyone occupy in the informal system of interdependence. Subordinates fare less badly by resorting to the informal system, even managing to “build worlds in their eyes that are desirable” (p. 127). They nonetheless remain subordinates with limited room for maneuver.

Another point to note, Ronan Hervouet shows that the peasant world is not that of anomie and everyone for themselves, the sad reality of the Russia of the ultra-liberal reforms of the 1990s. On the contrary, the author explains at length the way in which important forms of solidarity are shaped there (chapter 7, pp. 149-172). It thus examines different cases of subbonitki, these public holidays dedicated to voluntary work inherited from the Soviet Union, by following the multiple interpretations given by the different actors. It thus highlights the part of altruism, conviviality and solidarity which enters into this practice, which is therefore not only an obligation decreed from above, but can leave room for multiple reappropriations from below. .

Happy is also the qualification of a “practical” solidarity arising from an injunction to do which is experienced more as a ritual opening up possibilities of doing, or even doing differently or better.

A “satisfactory” rural world?

The norms promulgated from above are therefore not automatically or passively adopted from below: they are the subject of multiple reappropriations, diversions, accommodations, which Ronan Hervouet describes, drawing inspiration from Michel de Certeau and Erving Goffman. He concludes, however, that “the diversions observed do not radically free themselves from the aims of power” (p. 171) and, further, that “the meaning with which the actors endow their actions, if it is not mechanically determined by power, however, directly echoes it” (ibid.).

The author returns several times to the idea that the practical inventiveness demonstrated by the actors ultimately echoes the discourse of power. But no definition is given of this notion of echo. And never is the idea discussed that it could be the discourse of those in power that would partly “echo” the aspirations and values ​​of the peasant world below.

These values ​​(chapter 8, p. 173-193) outline the contours of a life possibly considered worth living and therefore allowing a feeling of self-dignity. The criteria for a dignified life are the possibility, thought of as open equally to all, of satisfying one’s material needs, merit, autonomy, solidarity: “The world of the collectivized countryside can thus be experienced as just” (p 193).

This observation should not be underestimated. It accounts for a significant part of the weakness of the criticisms addressed to the regime, unlike what happens in neighboring Russia where the popular worlds, urban and rural, are experienced as unjust. And the author insists: “This observation of the possibility of a dignified life is not the fruit of a performativity of state ideology” (p. 191). In simple terms, the rural working classes value the worlds they have created for themselves and are therefore not a priori tempted by the prospect of radical changes, potentially catastrophic for themselves.

The ordinary relationship with politics is presented as excluding the questioning of the legitimacy of the regime or the rules which hold together rural worlds thought to be just and satisfactory. Critics of everyday life are much more focused on the “fragility of the world” (chapter 9, p. 195-218) which can threaten the stability of these acceptable forms of life. This threat to rural moral communities would come not from the system, but from certain people, whom the author calls the “offenders of morality”, namely the “profiteers”, the “lazy” and “the moralists”, in particular the activists of the liberal opposition.

Double meaning

The authorities and those in power are asked to protect the rural community from these threats. But above all, the system is required to respect the “moral economy” (in the sense of Edward Thompson and James Scott) of these communities. Concretely, the power in place is required to tolerate “the petty illegalities which allow honest people to live decently” and to protect their “just worlds” (p. 217).

The author concludes by rejecting the idea of ​​absolute domination and an annihilation of the critical capacities of the actors. The accommodation of rural communities to the authoritarian regime is achieved thanks to the moral economy which “echoes”, without being a mechanical reproduction, the ideological foundations of the regime (p. 241), notably highlighting equality, solidarity and dignity. “Attachment to these principles (is) the symbolic extension of practices anchored in daily life” (p. 242). This last remark encourages us to think that the “echo” between state propaganda and the values ​​of the rural world is a two-way street.

The work succeeds in going beyond “binary reasoning” (p. 243) between adhesion and opposition, or resistance and collaboration – antagonistic couples commonly mobilized to define authoritarian regimes (and beyond). Ronan Hervouet even suggests conceiving of the “hidden text” as entangled with the public text: even infra-politics or underground practices of resistance would be intertwined with the official discourse. This idea of ​​entanglement is undoubtedly Ronan Hervouet’s most significant contribution to the study of ordinary politics.