I was at an interesting seminar talk yesterday, given by a sociologist called Georgi Derluguian. His topic was roughly the concept of nationalism in the Balkans, but covered a lot of ground. I keep coming back, though, to a comment he made, during a discussion of what he called ‘de-modernisation’. I don’t want to get into the details of whether this is a useful or accurate term so will stick to his reading of it for now, which is that as the Soviet system collapsed/retreated countries like Chechnya have been going through a process of de-modernisation. So, for instance, its not just that tower blocks no longer have running hot water, they are likely never to have hot running water ever again. When the electricity goes out, people go into the back of the barn and hunt out their grandfather’s oil lamp.

Part of his argument (as I heard it) was a critique of the way we assume certain social forms, like feudalism or modernity, are set in a progressive linear relationship, and that once we have evolved through them we cannot return. He used the concept of ‘racketeers’ to describe the aristocrats through much of Balken history – surviving on codes of honour, loyalty and ruthlessness, and through a power and wealth vested in the owning the most advanced weaponry and paying for it with a lively slave trade. The most interesting point being, that he sees this as existing today as much as in the past – guns for horses, steel swords and chain mail; the trade in prostitutes for the trade in agricultural slaves and, well, prostitutes. (The racketeer/mafia code itself being so unchanging it needs no translation.)

Then he posed the question of ‘who is living in the refugee camps in Chechnya?’ The answer being people like teachers, nurses, professors – those who have always relied on wages to survive, and now lack the skills and the families that are necessary to survive by either subsistence farming or by their guns. Once the state collapses they are unable to survive. The people who are thriving are the underclass, the lowest of the low, the most downtrodden of society who, with the collapse of modernity, are able to access the skills and resources of their ancestors. Who reach for their guns and can go back to their fields when necessary.

Its an interesting argument. It nicely demonstrates that, either way, outside of modernity the middle-classes are fucked.