Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Communist Queue

Queue For Food

One of the most emblematic aspects of life in the Soviet Union was the queue. Ordinary citizens waited in line for almost anything. The Soviet economy may have produced impressive gains in industrial output. It may (or may not have) dramatically reduced extreme forms of poverty and inequality. It may have launched rockets into space, equipped a powerful army with advanced artillery, and mined huge quantities of mineral resources from the Siberian earth. It could not, however, keep the store shelves full. The history of the Soviet economy is the history of a weak consumer economy. Whereas capitalism struggled with the fact that some citizens couldn’t afford to get a hold of any of the countless products the system produced, communism dealt with a much different paradox: people often had money but nothing to buy with that money.

So what exactly is a queue? Lidiya Ginzburg makes sense of the term in a general sense, even though the breadlines she describes took place at one of the worst moments in a horrible century, the siege of Leningrad. She’s a sociologist analyzing the phenomenon of the queue in exquisite detail.

The queue is made up of hostile, irritable people, who are nevertheless united by a common goal of keeping order and ensuring that line-jumpers don’t overwhelm the structure of the established line. The queue has gender elements: women have more experience with waiting in line for essentials—they did so even before the siege. Women are also more likely to accept the premise that their time is essentially worthless: they can wait all day if need be.

Men aren’t constructed this way. They feel entitled to cut in line and some always attempt to do so. Even when everybody is suffering together, men think that they suffer more precisely because they are not accustomed to suffering. People talk in queues, but their discourse follows special patterns. To begin with, people are extraordinarily rude to anybody they suspect might harbor any feelings of superiority.

The queue is democratic—everybody waits—and it’s important to reassert this fact at all times. People naturally talk about food (or whatever it is for which they are waiting) in the queue. In a siege, the discourse can be divided into four categories, according to Ginzburg: informational, emotive, story-telling, and self-aggrandizing.

Ginzburg’s close reading of the queue procedes right up to the counter, where customers strain every muscle in their neck hoping to see just exactly how much food they will receive. As Ginzburg sees things, the person at the head of the line wants to participate in some kind of ritual by watching the bread as it gets weighed on the scale. She likens this event to horse-racing, where the crowd feels as if it too were carried along by the horses that are actually running the race.

Upon receiving the ration, the lucky person goes home, but new trials wait, as he or she must decide upon a specific strategy of consumption. Is it best to save the scarce item, or devour it at once? In some ways, the queue fits Ginzburg’s larger theme about suffering, that we use suffering to deflect us from recognizing the absolute horror of non-existence. As bad as lines are, they allow us hope that at some point—perhaps in one hour, perhaps in three—we will achieve something definite. There’s a cure for scarcity—waiting—but there is no cure for nonbeing or death.

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