Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Abstract: This panel explores the endurance of political ideas, ideals, and solidarities in changing climates. While significant scholarly attention has focused on the collapse of socialism, here we examine not just the legacies of past socialist regimes and movements, but also the ways that these formations persist in the present. The recent resurgence of ‘socialism’ as a pronounceable political idea in the United States draws attention to how shifting political, social and economic circumstances affect the meaning, importance and acceptability of the term. But in settings where ‘socialism’ was never as stigmatised as in the Cold War West, or never disappeared as label for political projects, how have changing societal climates affected its significance and use? In theorizing the way that objects, buildings, artworks, and places become identified as ‘socialist’ things, we place a particular emphasis on urban studies and anthropology of the built environment. Further, given that to sustain is not simply to endure, but to nourish, we also examine how a sense of attachment, and even affective intimacy, is relationally maintained and concretized in the material world. We ask: On what do people base their claims to still be enacting ‘socialist’ projects in circumstances which have departed from the days of state ownership of strategic industries, relative socioeconomic equality and internationalist ties to other avowedly socialist peoples and states? How is socialism sustained when social and economic relations have been reconfigured with the flourishing of neoliberal economics, the physical collapse and decay of socialist-era infrastructure, or the emergence of oligarchic, neo-traditionalist or populist-nationalist politics?
We address these and other questions by looking at the material, rhetorical and performative ways in which socialism remains a meaningful notion. In the spirit of thinking “between the posts” (Chari and Verdery 2009), we bring together a range of ethnographic work situated in diverse geographic contexts, including those that are not conventionally conceptualized as (post)socialist. In some settings, avowedly socialist states and their populations forged worlds saturated in socialism’s monuments, iconography, textures, morality and semantics. The enduring effects of this can be seen both in socialism’s embeddedness in intimate sensory experiences (Min) and in how infrastructure and development along the China/Russia border are understood as ‘socialist’ even long after surrounding politics and economics have radically metamorphosed (Pulford). Societal transformations over time offer only one way to study how socialism is sustained, for migration to the erstwhile ‘capitalist’ world by the Mongolian population of Los Angeles (Anyadike-Danes) shows that transition may also have spatial dimensions. Different again from these radical temporal and spatial breaks, some postcolonial settings have seen socialism endure amidst very different climatic shifts, and both leftist property activists in South Africa (Wrapp) and gang lineages of the urban dispossessed in Pakistan (Suhail) offer cases where socialist ideas have long animated campaigns of organised resistance and struggles for justice. All these contemporary climates see communities re-evaluating socialist pasts and presents, facing challenges to old solidarities and allegiances, and perhaps reshaping the meaning of socialism itself.