Privatization or the Artificial Paradises of PostCommunism Boris Groys
The term that without a doubt best characterizes the processes that have been taking place since the abdication of the communist regime in Russia, and in Eastern Europe generally, is privatization. The complete abolition of private ownership of the means of production was seen by the theoreticians and practitioners of Russian Bolshevism as the crucial prerequisite to building first a socialist and later a communist society. Total nationalization of all private property was the only thing that could achieve the total social plasticity that the Communist Party needed to obtain a completely new, unprecedented power to form society. Above all, however, this meant that art was given primacy over nature—over human nature and over nature generally. Only when the “natural rights” of humanity, including the right to private property, were abolished, and the “natural” connections to origin, heritage, and one’s “own” cultural tradition severed, could people invent themselves in a completely free and new way. Only someone who no longer has property is free and available for every social experiment. The abolition of private property thus represents the transition from the natural to the artificial, from the realm of necessity to the realm of (political and artistic) freedom, from the traditional state to the Gesamtkunstwerk. The great utopians of history, such as Plato, Thomas More, and Tommaso Campanella, had viewed the abolition of private property and associated private interests as a necessary prerequisite for the unconstrained pursuit of a collective political project.
The reintroduction of private property thus represents an equally crucial prerequisite for putting an end to the communist experiment. The disappearance of a communist-run state is thus not merely a political event. We know from history that governments, political systems, and power relations have often changed without having substantial effects on private ownership rights. In such cases, social and economic life continued to be structured according to civil law even as political life was being radically transformed. With the fall of the Soviet Union, by contrast, there was no longer a valid social contract. Enormous territories became abandoned wildernesses as far as rights were concerned—as in the Wild West era in the United States—and had to be restructured. That is to say, they had to be parceled, distributed, and opened up to privatization, following rules that neither existed nor could exist. The process of decommunization of the formerly communist Eastern European countries may thus be seen as a drama of privatization that naturally played out beyond all the usual conventions of civilization. It is well known that this drama kindled many passions and produced many victims. Human nature, which had previously been suppressed, manifested itself as raw violence in the struggle over the private acquisition of collective assets.
This struggle should not, however, be understood as simply a transition that leads (back) from a society without private property to a society with private property. Ultimately, privatization proves to be just as much an artificial political construct as nationalization had been. The same state that had once nationalized in order to build up communism is now privatizing in order to build up capitalism. In both cases private property is subordinated to the raison d’état to the same degree—and in this way it manifests itself as an artifact, as a product of state planning. Privatization as a (re-)introduction of private property does not, therefore, lead back to nature—to natural law. The postcommunist state is, like its communist predecessor, a kind of artistic installation. Hence the postcommunist situation is one that reveals the artificiality of capitalism by presenting the emergence of capitalism as a purely political project of social restructuring (Russian: perestroika) and not as the result of a “natural” process of economic development. The establishment of capitalism in Eastern Europe, including Russia, was indeed neither a consequence of economic necessity nor one of gradual and “organic” historical transition. Rather, a political decision was made to switch from building up communism to building up capitalism, and to that end (in complete harmony with classical Marxism) to produce artificially a class of private property owners who would become the principal protagonists of this process. Thus there was no return to the market as a “state of nature” but rather a revelation of the highly artificial character of the market itself.
For that reason, too, privatization is not a transition but a permanent state, since it is precisely through the process of privatization that the private discovers its fatal dependence on the state: private spaces are necessarily formed from the remnants of the state monster. It is a violent dismemberment and private appropriation of the dead body of the socialist state, both of which recall sacred feasts of the past in which members of a tribe would consume a totem animal together. On the one hand, such a feast represents a privatization of the totem animal, since everyone received a small, private piece of it; on the other, however, the justification for the feast was precisely a creation of the supraindividual identity of the tribe.
This common identity that makes it possible to experience privatization as a collective project is manifested particularly clearly in the art that is being produced in postcommunist countries today. First of all, every artist in any area once under communism still finds him- or herself under the shadow of the state art that has just gone under. It is not easy for an artist today to compete with Stalin, Ceausescu, or Tito—just as it is probably difficult for Egyptian artists, now as much as ever, to compete with the pyramids. Moreover, collective property under the conditions of “real socialism” went along with a large reservoir of collective experiences. This is because the numerous political measures undertaken by the socialist state to shape the population into a new communist humanity affected this population as a whole. The result was a collective mental territory whose sovereign was the state. Under the rule of the Communist Party every private psyche was subordinated to and nationalized by the official ideology. Just as the socialist state at its demise made an immense economic area available to private appropriation, so did the simultaneous abolition of official Soviet ideology leave as its legacy the enormous empire of collective emotions that was made available for private appropriation for the purposes of producing an individualist, capitalist soul. For artists today this represents a great opportunity, for when they enter this territory of collective experiences, they are immediately understood by their public. But it also conceals a great risk, since the artistic privatization proves to be as incomplete and as dependent on commonality now as much as ever.
Be that as it may, however, today’s postcommunist art is produced largely by means of the privatization of the mental and symbolic territory that has been left behind by the Soviet ideology. Admittedly, it is not unlike the Western art of postmodernism in this respect; for appropriation or, if you will, privatization, continues to function as the leading artistic method in the context of international contemporary art. Most artists today appropriate various historical styles, religious or ideological symbols, mass-produced commodities, widespread advertising, but also the works of certain famous artists. The art of appropriation sees itself as art after the end of history: it is no longer about the individual production of the new but about the struggles of distribution, about the debate over property rights, about the individual’s opportunity to accumulate private symbolic capital. All of the images, objects, symbols, and styles appropriated by Western art today originally circulated as commodities on a market that has always been dominated by private interests. Hence in this context appropriative art seems aggressive and subversive—a kind of symbolic piracy that moves along the border between the permitted and the prohibited and explores the redistribution of capital—at least of symbolic capital, if not real capital.
Postcommunist art, by contrast, appropriates from the enormous store of images, symbols, and texts that no longer belong to anyone, and that no longer circulate but merely lie quietly on the garbage heap of history as a shared legacy from the days of communism. Postcommunist art has passed through its own end of history—not the free-market and capitalist end of history but the socialist and Stalinist end of history. The true impudence of real socialism in its Stalinist form, after all, was its assertion that the Soviet Union marked the historical end of the class struggle, of the revolution, and even of all forms of social criticism—that the salvation from the hell of exploitation and war had already occurred. The real circumstances in the Soviet Union were proclaimed to be identical with the ideal circumstances after the final victory of good over evil. The real location in which the socialist camp had established itself was decreed the site of utopia realized. It requires—and even then it required—no great effort or insight to demonstrate that this was a counterfactual assertion, that the official idyll was manipulated by the state, that the struggle continued, whether it was a struggle for one’s own survival, a struggle against repression and manipulation, or the struggle of permanent revolution. And nevertheless, it would be just as impossible to banish the famous assertion “It is fulfilled” from the world simply by pointing to world’s actual injustices and inadequacies. One speaks of the end of history, that is, of the identity between antiutopia and utopia, of hell and paradise, of damnation and salvation, when one chooses the present over the future because one believes that the future will no longer bring anything new beyond what one has already seen in the past. Above all, one believes it when one witnesses an image or an event that one assumes is of such incomparable radicalness that it can at most be repeated but never surpassed. This may be an image of Christ on the cross, of Buddha beneath the tree, or, in Hegel’s case, Napoleon on a horse. However, it could also be the experience of the Stalinist state—of the state that created the most radical form of expropriation, of terror, of total equality, because it was directed against everyone equally. This was precisely the argument of Alexandre Kojève’s famous Parisian lectures in the 1930s on Hegel’s philosophy of history, as he explicitly declared Stalinism to be the end of history. In the postwar period Kojève’s successors began to speak again of the end of history, or post-histoire and postmodernism. This time, however, it was no longer Stalinism but the victory of free-market capitalism in the Second World War and later in the Cold War that would usher in the final stage of history. And once again the attempt was made to refute the discourse about the end of history by pointing to the continuing progress of history in actuality. But the choice of the present over the future cannot be refuted by factual arguments, since that choice takes both the factual and all arguments that refer to the factual to be merely the eternal recurrence of the same—and hence of that which has been already overcome historically. There is nothing easier than to say that the struggle goes on, since this is obviously the truth of healthy human reason. It is more difficult to recognize that those involved in the struggle are in fact not struggling at all but have simply ossified in battle position.
Thus postcommunist art is an art that passed from one state after the end of history into the other state after the end of history: from real socialism into postmodern capitalism; or, from the idyll of universal expropriation following the end of the class struggle into the ultimate resignation with respect to the depressing infinity in which the same struggles for distribution, appropriation, and privatization are permanently repeated. Western postmodern art, which reflects on this infinity and at the same time savors it, sometimes wants to appear combative, sometimes cynical, but in any case it wants to be critical. Postcommunist art, by contrast, proves to be deeply anchored in the communist idyll—it privatizes and expands this idyll rather than renouncing it. That is why postcommunist art frequently seems too harmless, that is, not critical or radical enough. And indeed it pursues the utopian logic of inclusion, not the realist logic of exclusion, struggle, and criticism. It amounts to an extension of the logic of communist ideology, which sought to be universalist and strove toward the dialectical unity of all oppositions but ultimately remained stuck in the confrontations of the Cold War because it resisted all symbols of Western capitalism. The independent, unofficial art of late socialism wanted to think through the end of history more rigorously and to expand the utopia of the peaceful coexistence of all nations, cultures, and ideologies both to the capitalist West and to the precommunist history of the past.
Russians artists from the 1960s and 1970s, such as Vitali Komar and Alexander Melamid, and later the Slovenian artists’ group IRWIN or the Czech artist Milan Kunc, pursued this strategy of rigorous inclusion. They created spaces of an artistic idyll in which symbols, images, and texts perceived as irreconcilable in the political reality of the Cold War could live in peaceful coexistence. Also as early as the 1960s and 1970s other artists, such as Ilya Kabakov or Erik Bulatov, mixed gloomy images of daily life in the Soviet Union with the cheerful images of official propaganda. The artistic strategies of ideological reconciliation beyond the trenches of the Cold War announced at that time an extended and radicalized utopia that was intended to include their enemies as well. This politics of inclusion was pursued by many Russian and Eastern European artists even after the break up of the communist regime. One might say that it is the extension of the paradise of real socialism in which everything is accepted that had previously been excluded, and hence it is a utopian radicalization of the communist demand for the total inclusion of one and all, including those who are generally considered dictators, tyrants, and terrorists but also capitalists, militarists, and the profiteers of globalization. This kind of radicalized utopian inclusivity was often misunderstood as irony, but it is rather a posthistorical idyll that sought analogies instead of differences.
Even postcommunist poverty is depicted as utopian by today’s Russian artists, because poverty unites whereas wealth divides. Boris Mikhailov in particular depicts everyday life in Russia and the Ukraine in a way that is both unsparing and loving. The same idyllic note is perceived clearly in the videos of Olga Chernyshova, Dmitri Gutov, and Lyudmila Gorlova; for these artists, utopia lives on in the daily routine of postcommunism, even if officially it has been replaced by capitalist competition. The gesture of collective political protest, by contrast, is presented as an artistic theatricalization that no longer has a place in the indifferent, utterly privatized daily life of postcommunism. For example, in a performance by the group Radek, a crowd of people crossing the street at an intersection in Moscow’s lively downtown is interpreted as a political demonstration by placing the artists, like the revolutionary leaders of the past, in front of this passive crowd with their posters. Once the street has been crossed, however, everyone goes his own way. And Anatoly Ozmolovsky designed his political action in Moscow as a direct citation of the events of 1968 in Paris. The political imagination presents itself here as the storeroom of historical (pre)images that are available for appropriation.
This characterization does not, of course, apply to all the art made in the countries of the former Soviet Union. The reaction to the universalist, internationalist, communist utopia does not always, or even primarily, consist in the attempt to think through this utopia more radically than was done under the conditions of real socialism. Rather, people frequently reacted to this utopia with a demand for national isolationism, for the creation of a fixed national and cultural identity. This reaction could also be clearly noted already in the late socialist phase, but it was intensified sharply after the new national states were created on the territory of the former Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, and the former Eastern bloc—and the search for national cultural identities became the main activity of those states. Admittedly, these national cultural identities were themselves cobbled together from appropriated remnants of the communist empire, but as a rule this fact is not openly acknowledged. Rather, the communist period is interpreted as a traumatic interruption of an organic historical growth of the national identity in question.
Communism is thus externalized, deinternationalized, and portrayed as the sum of the traumas to which a foreign power subjected one’s own identity, which now requires therapy so that said identity can become intact again. For the non-Russian peoples of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the time of the dominance of the communist parties is consequently presented as a time of Russian military occupation, under which the peoples in question merely suffered passively. For the theoreticians of Russian nationalism, in turn, communism was initially the work of foreigners (Jews, Germans, Latvians, etc.), but it had already been largely overcome during Stalinism and replaced by a glorious Russian empire. Thus the nationalists of all these countries are in complete agreement in their historical diagnosis, and they are prepared for further struggle, even though they repeatedly find themselves on different sides of this struggle. The only thing that falls out of this fortuitous consensus is postcommunist art, or better, postdissident art, which clings to peaceful universalism as an idyllic utopia beyond any struggle.
Boris Groys, “Privatization or Artificial Paradises of Post-Communism,” Art Power, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2008, p. 165–172.