Networks of gifts and obligations

Apoptosis Network


I wrote in my last post about my apartment here in St. Petersburg, which very likely would originally have been shared by multiple generations of the same family, despite seeming to me to be only big enough for a single person – or at most a childless couple – by contemporary western standards.

Of course, it was never designed for so many people. However, under the Soviet Union, resources such as apartments could not be built, bought or sold privately. Everything was done by the State, and allocation was supposedly done in order, according to where your name was on the relevant list. Unfortunately, of course, the State was incredibly inefficient and slow, so it would hardly be unusual to wait ten or even more years for your name to come up. Until then, you shared.

When I mentioned that, under these conditions, people got things done through personal networks instead of official channels, a friend commented on Facebook: “Isn’t any system e.g. blat, guanxi, enchufe in Spain, that is subverting the sanctioned system better known as corruption?”. It’s an excellent question, getting right to the point I wanted to talk about this week, because it brings us straight to the underlying assumption that the “sanctioned system” is itself fair. This is rarely the case, much as we might wish it to be so.

In China, there has never really been any such thing as an impartial rule of law, or any civil institutions that would lead to a sense of a shared civil society. Obtaining any kind of official position within the imperial bureaucracy was seen as an opportunity to enrich oneself through bribes, ‘extra’ taxes, and so on – to the extent that for ordinary Chinese, the safest course of action was to avoid any interaction with officials to the greatest possible extent. Official Confucian culture placed merchants almost at the bottom of the social scale, above only soldiers – so there wasn’t any such thing as a formal banking system. In consequence, the Chinese got things done through a system of favours and obligations.

First and foremost, family members helped one another. The extended family is, and always has been, the bedrock and defining unit of Chinese society. If the family’s resources weren’t sufficient, the village might be called upon. For most of China’s history, society was agrarian and village-based. Village records kept track of births and relationships, and it was vital to be an acknowledged member of the community. (Even today, members of the Chinese diaspora, whose families may have left China generations ago, maintain contact with their ancestral village, and may even visit to ensure that their names are recorded). In many ways, favours and obligations were wealth, and were to an extent tradeable.  If a villager in Shandong needed something done in Beijing he may not know anyone there. However, he may well have known someone in Tianjin who owed him a favour. If that person in turn was owed a favour by someone in Beijing, and the favours were comparable in scale, then the Shandong man might get the Beijing man to help him out, and everyone would see this as a perfectly satisfactory solution.

Obviously, in such a society, the worst possible situation to be in would be one where nobody owed you any favours, and so creating obligations through gift-giving, paying for meals, etc, is a vital activity. (Once you understand this, an awful lot of what happens to you in China as an expat makes vastly more sense). Post-1949, China became a Communist state; everything became centralised. Like most Communist states, it was extremely inefficient, and not very much worked properly. However, the system I’ve described above, known as guanxi, was so deeply embedded, and so easily adaptable to the new circumstances, that it survived and prospered, though now on a broader basis than just family and village. Even now that China is becoming more of a mixed system, guanxi continues to thrive, since the system is still arbitrary, uncertain, and inefficient in very many ways.

In Russia, the situation is different. The traditional Russian village was not the same as Chinese villages. Chinese villages were far from utopian, but the villagers were at least free – and so, in theory, able to acquire wealth through their own efforts, which included going to live and work elsewhere in search of their fortune. In Russia, by contrast, the villagers were serfs. Until serfdom was abolished in 1861, villagers were the property of the local landowners, in exactly the same ways that dogs and donkeys were property. They were tied to their village, forbidden from travelling without permission, and obliged by law to provide labour to their master. Mutual aid amongst Russian peasants, then, was far more confrontational and tied to theft from, and resistance to, the propertied classes. Some groups escaped entirely, and lived in the wilderness as free men along the lines of Britain’s “men of the greenwood”. These were blatnoi, who I described at more length on one of my other blogs.

Russia’s industrialisation followed hard upon the end of serfdom, and was driven by the mass migration of peasants to the cities. The countryside remained impoverished, and Russians had nothing like the family and village resources which Chinese peasants drew upon. Within a couple of generations, the Bolsheviks took power, and the economy was centralised. The State promised many things – but succeeded in delivering very few of them to its citizens. The State also had a confrontational attitude with the citizens; the various anti-spy campaigns, campaigns to root out the old order, purges, and the like meant that the government was not the friend of the ordinary citizen. Furthermore, it was well-known that Communist Party members and cadres were given preferential treatment, and access to goods and services that the ordinary citizen didn’t have. In these circumstances, the perceived Robin-Hood like attitudes of the Imperial-era blatnoi made sense. Food might be gathered into State warehouses, where it rotted due to poor distribution systems. So,  well, if you knew someone who worked in a warehouse, what harm was there in getting them to bring you some extra food now and then? If you had been waiting ten years for a car, and a friend of a friend got a job in the distribution office, well, what harm if they bumped your name up the list? It only meant that some stranger neither of you knew might wait a little longer; too bad for them, but they would never know. In good time, when the opportunity arose, the favour could be paid back.

For Russians, the unit of the network was your ‘group’ rather than the family, and so blat worked in a different way to guanxi. Chinese (whose families had a fixed Confucian hierarchy) contributed to the good of the family unit; Russians would be more inclined to use favours for personal benefit, and might seek to increase their status within their ‘group’. Still, in Russia as well as China, having a ‘fund’ of favours to call in was important. Once the Soviet Union fell, though, blat began to fall out of use. To a much greater extent than in China, it was based on ‘liberating’ state resources; the move to a capitalist economy and privatisation of most state enterprises, removed its fundamental mode of operation.

In the case of both blat and guanxi, the issue was this: how do individuals, families, and groups survive and prosper in a situation where the levers and resources of the state are not available to them and/or not addressing their needs. In both cases, though in different ways, the solution was found in personal relationships, and networks based on those relationships.

This brings me to the question I was asked on Facebook: isn’t this unfair? isn’t this corruption?

I take the view of yes, but… – or, possibly, of no, but…

These activities and ways of doing things seem pretty bad to us Brits. We’ve got a very strong ethos that opportunity and resources should be given on the basis of rules; on merit, or need as objectively judged, rather than on the basis of who you know. I absolutely agree that this is the way it should be: on merit, on a basis of fairness.

And yet…

In the spring of last year, 2013, I was on holiday in an historic British town. I’d been walking around and enjoying the sights, and was getting pretty hungry. There was a well-known pub nearby, and I was really looking forward to having my evening meal there (and, to be honest, there weren’t many other places to eat).

It was a summer evening, and I’d been watching the sunset over the sea, so it was about 9ish when I reached the pub – to be told, very sorry but the kitchen closed half an hour ago. Ack!

If that had been my own local pub, I might well have got something to eat – because I’m known there. This, however, was a completely different part of the country; I was a complete stranger, and I’d never met anyone in the pub before. For almost anyone, that would have been it: no food, very sorry.

I was served, though, and had a delicious meal.

So why did I get a meal? Because the town was Caernarfon, a stronghold of the Welsh language, and I’d been speaking Welsh. Purely on the basis of the language, the bar staff and kitchen made an exception for me, even though I was a stranger (and speaking a different dialect of Welsh at that).

This is the sort of thing that is intensely irritating to a particular kind of English visitor to Wales, some whom genuinely appear to believe that Welsh-speakers really speak English to each other, only switching to Welsh to annoy visitors! (It’s a delightful image: an entire language and culture being maintained solely to spite the English. It’s the sort of idea I could see Terry Pratchett having great fun with…)

So, was it fair that I should be served, when others weren’t purely because I shared a minority language with the restaurant staff? Well, if you believe that we live in a society where rules are rules, the same for everybody, well, yes, it is unfair.

In fact, Welsh-speakers don’t necessarily feel that we do live in a fair and equal society. The Welsh language has historically been actively discriminated against by the British Government. Welsh was only granted “equal validity” with English in 1967, and only actually obtained full legal status in 1993! Even today, there is a great deal of prejudice against the language, and speakers of Welsh feel under a great deal of pressure (see here for an excellent rant about this). So, Welsh-speakers have a strong historical basis for mutual support and aid – because the State itself banned their language, and only under great pressure eventually gave Welsh-speakers the right to receive official services in their own language. The system, officially universal, didn’t work – so it had to be worked around.

The truth of the matter is that here in the UK, we are exceptionally lucky. Serfdom did exist here, but it was abolished centuries ago; so long ago that it’s left no real impact on our culture. This is an anomaly: in most European and Asian countries, serfdom was only abolished in the 18th or 19th centuries: a blink of an eye in terms of cultural change. Like the Chinese but not the Russians, Britons have been free as individuals to move around to seek opportunity.

The British have also had the astonishing good luck to possess habeas corpus (freedom from arbitrary detention), and the concept derived from Magna Carta that the law applies to everyone, equally. Looking around globally, the situation in UK & associated cultures is an anomaly in many ways. Here, unlike China, Russia, or many other states, the British have been able to take for granted the concept that everyone should be treated equally, and that individual merit should be a defining and universal principle.

Even in the UK, though there have always been excluded groups  – such as Welsh-speakers – who consciously see themselves as – at least to some extent – being outside, or excluded from the official system , and so help each other. This is equally true of any group for whom a society’s official values and promises are not being delivered; in the failure of official channels to work, they will use the resources available from within their group.

Clearly, there is a potential conflict with the values of enlightenment & equality which I, and most ordinary people in the UK, hold: that everyone should treated equally on their merits. However, as we can see, there is inevitably going to be a strong bond between members of particular groups, whether these groups are based on language, belief, or the school they went to. In a properly-functioning system, where all are held to account under the same rules without fear or favour, and where the benefits of membership are fairly available, then enlightenment values will hold out. When the system fails to work properly, simple human nature means that if official channels can’t meet their needs, they’ll turn to informal networks.

My feeling is that the UK today is in a transition period. The rules by which society has functioned for generations are starting to fail. Working hard, or going to university and studying diligently, no longer bring the rewards, promotions, and job opportunities they are supposed to for the majority. As these chances become rarer, people are increasingly, and quite naturally, identifying the fact that the system is broken and so reverting to the chances provided by networks.

Last year, there was a minor media storm about nepotism and internships; there was a self-righteous outcry about how the already well-connected were using those connections to obtain sought-after internships in politics, the media, and other prestigious areas. Of course, everybody – including those doing it – agreed that it was intrinsically unfair to young people of equal or greater merit, whose families don’t happen to have the right connections. Everybody agrees that this decreases social mobility, cementing opportunity in to those classes and groups who already have privilege, and almost everyone agree that this is a bad thing.

Yet, not one person will stop doing it, and if we’re honest none of us really expects them to – because we would do exactly the same thing ourselves. Why? Because the system is not working as it is supposed to. Jobs are not being created in sufficient numbers for fair distribution according to talent and merit, and so people are forced to fall back on their networks and other resources to obtain them.

Even worse, there seems to be a growing sense that the already privileged have begun to loot the system, grabbing what they can for themselves while it’s to be had.  Although I’m not familiar with the exact details of the case, a recent article about Sheffield University is just the sort of thing that sends this message: Fury at £105,000 pay rise for Sheffield University boss after he refused to raise employees’ salaries to the living wage. Of course, I hardly need to speak about the antics of the bankers… Nor indeed to remind you that politicians of all parties increasingly come from the same background, and are less and less representative of society as a whole…

If this is the case, and if this ossification of the political system continues, while social mobility and the ability to keep up with rising living costs continue to decline… then the system is broken. That, in turn, means that developing a strong personal network in order to get things done is going to become a critical skill. Many of us, raised in a period of believing in opportunity through hard work and effort, are going to find this a challenge. We grew up believing that things should be done in an open and transparent manner, rather than through favours and connections. We may well find that we have to change our ways. To do so we will, for the first time, have to think about how network- and favour-based economies work.

Fortunately, China and Russia give us good models on which to base our thinking. Next week I’ll look at some of the lessons to be learned.


Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the Leningrad Blockade. There’s going to be a parade on Nevsky Prospect, which I’ll try to get to.

English Russia has an extensive set of photos of Leningrad Under Siege.

Image credit: Apoptosis Network by sjcockell, on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

One thought on “Networks of gifts and obligations

  1. Pingback: Siege mentalities (and why you need to have one) | Emlyn Phillips

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