A Cautionary Note on Commerce and Service in Altai Krai*

Река Катунь

I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man…  I used to be in the government service, but am no longer. I was a spiteful official. I was rude and took pleasure in being so… When petitioners used to come for information to the table at which I sat, I used to grind my teeth at them, and felt intense enjoyment when I succeeded in making anybody unhappy. I almost did succeed. For the most part they were all timid people — of course, they were petitioners. (Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground)

According to a recent Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum, Russia was voted among the top three most-unfriendly countries for tourists!  Is this surprising?

The Cold War is now over. By most accounts, it appears the West has won.  However, it seems the real battle may just be heating up.  With America leading the way, the path engineered by the West has spawned an economic and cultural hegemony that is conquering the globe, including Siberia. I call this hegemony the curriculum of the West.  Just look at the Cinnabon and Subway shops popping up around Barnaul, if you don’t believe me. Yet, the ascendancy of American-style capitalism has also unleashed a rash of values – individualism, consumerism, and competition – whose dissemination is lightning fast, wide ranging, and spreading insidiously, enabled by the very technologies to which capitalism itself gave rise.

But where are compassion, cooperation, and caring in a world that values individual competitiveness and winning above all else? The first fatalities in this atmosphere are natural expressions of human caring and concern for others. It is one reason American business itself has undergone decades of “psych-ops” a.k.a. customer service training – just attempting to undo the negative effects of a highly contestual zero-sum game.

Unfortunately, economic gain and personal advancement – along with an accompanying undercurrent of greed and hubris – appear now to constitute a new attitude even here in Altai Krai. With an implacable call for progress and unrestrained growth, it is no wonder we are so pre-possessed by the dream of independence, the acquisition of new toys or economic privilege. Some might say it is globalization of the American Dream – the Holy Grail of an unrelenting drive for acquisitions, and the promise of a better and brighter future. But the trajectory of this teleological movement may be driving us ever closer to an apocalyptic conclusion.

The unyielding pressure of global capitalism distracts attention from the innate risks associated with unrestrained economic growth, commercial exploitation, and the drive for individual advancement. We end up consuming and depleting all available resources (including our own lives and those of our neighbors’) in the name of establishing what amounts to an erector-set village artfully crafted from infantile dreams of omnipotence, conquest, and domination.  Just look at how folks drive their cars here in the city of Barnaul – nobody and nothing shall stand in their way. This will give you an indication of the dark underbelly of progress.  Concern for other persons, and with it, the concept of service, becomes anathema to finishing a mad dash up the ladder of personal gain.

Yet our suspicions go undetected and our faith in this curriculum, along with its promise of personal happiness, remains intact.  We continue driving, accepting as axiomatic that the paths of commercial success, material abundance, and personal righteousness coincide.  In fact, we take for granted that progress is a good in itself – the only means of achieving ‘the good life’. But why do we hold tight to this belief?

Like the rest of the Soviet Bloc, Siberia and Altai Krai were forcibly excluded from all the “fun” of casino capitalism for almost a century. But the forbidden fruits are now within your grasp. The citizens of Barnaul have awakened to smell the coffee.  In fact, the coffee shops here are multiplying like rabbits on holiday.  And while more and more of you are putting a new car in the garage previously used as a root cellar, we are choking on your noxious fumes. You can see this among the economically mobile and even among those with marginal commercial success here in the city. You cannot live without your cell phones, your iPads and iPods, your big screen HDTVs, your recently financed cars and newly minted driver’s licenses.  You have tasted the promise of the spectacle, and are mesmerized by its elusive appeal.

But perhaps we all want too much and too quickly. What is this pace of commercial development, economic expansion, and material accumulation costing you personally and socially here in Altai Krai, in Barnaul?  And do we need to moderate such expectations – this desire to live the Dream – out of concern for the cultural heritage and natural history that surrounds us? This should remain a principal question in any discussion on the future of Altai commerce, service, and tourism.  However, it is precisely this question that gets thrown under the bus, in deference to the apparently more important matters of business and the insatiable quest for success.

So what does this all mean in terms of clients and customer service?  Is the quality of economic interactions important to us, or is it just the next sale that matters? How do we regard our environment — the land, the air, and water?  Or are they merely commodities to be used and used-up in the interest of the next commercial transaction?  How do we educate our children?  Do we focus only on the skills required to generate capital and sell product?  Or do we focus on educating the whole person, with a careful eye to our traditions, our history, and the diverse legacies of the legendary Siberian soul?  Do we move to expand the economy without restraint, or do we first think about the world we want to inhabit and the world we want to leave to our children’s children?  How we treat one another in this economic free-for-all is, I believe, infinitely more important than how much money we make. I realized this myself, as I have had to check my own impatience with business-as-usual in Barnaul.

It has been recognized over the past several decades by scholars in diverse disciplines, that a key to our survival as a species, and a primary marker of the Homo genus was our sociability and our natural sharing of resources, whether that meant sharing food from the hunt, tools, or even sexual favors.  Our earliest forebears, living in small tribal bands of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers, shared anything and everything: that is what distinguished us from most, if not all, of our primate cousins. Sharing, as a basic and primal human activity, militated against the establishment of hierarchy and individual acquisitiveness. Hierarchy and competition only emerged with the birth of cities on the heels of agriculture a mere six thousand years ago. But for two hundred thousand years before that, Homo sapiens were egalitarian; and for two million years prior, earlier members of our genus (Home erectus, Homo neanderthalens) also lived in small egalitarian bands.

So, what does this have to do with client service and tourism?  Well, perhaps nothing.  But, service is fundamentally giving something of your self to the other.  It is essentially an act of sharing, reinforcing bonds of kinship, of affinity, of caring between and among people. The concept of client or customer service represents a modern example of this primal and very natural human tendency to share. It is how our earliest ancestors lived before the first city walls were erected, before the first social laws were enacted, before the first kings and priests started lording it over the rest of us, first giving voice to the illusion that competition and personal advancement — getting to the top of the power pyramid — were all that mattered.

I am not suggesting that providing good customer service is a ‘noble’ act.  It is not.  It is simply a human act, naturally human.  It is not a selfless act either, because as an act of sharing, it implicates you in a profound circle of reciprocity (giving and receiving). But neither is it calculating, like a quid pro quo – doing something in order to get something in return.  It is merely the human thing to do, rooted in our very genetic makeup as a species, in our Pleistocene origins.

Here in Altai Krai, in Siberia, and more generally in Russia, there may be two factors inhibiting a more giving and forgiving attitude in both commercial and social interactions. On the one hand, there are distinct remnants of an older Soviet-style command and control mentality – visible in that ‘spitefulness’ of which Dostoyevsky so clearly speaks.  On the other hand, there is a new and increasingly narrow focus on the cult of the individual and its entitlements.  This attitude is born of the mad dash-to-succeed within an emergent capitalist system – creating a new form of hierarchy grounded in competition and material acquisition, together with their assumption of social and political privilege.  Perhaps we need to remain vigilant of both.

I conclude with an enlightening confession by Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero in Notes From Underground.

I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful official. I was lying from spite. I was simply amusing myself with the petitioners… and in reality I never could become spiteful. I was conscious every moment in myself of many, very many elements absolutely opposite to that. I felt them positively swarming in me, these opposite elements. I knew that they had been swarming in me all my life and craving some outlet from me, but I would not let them, would not let them, purposely would not let them come out. They tormented me till I was ashamed: they drove me to convulsions and–sickened me, at last, how they sickened me!

* (To be presented at the Altai State Technical University Annual Conference on Economics, Tourism and Service, May 31, 2013)

19 Responses to A Cautionary Note on Commerce and Service in Altai Krai*

  1. Karl North says:

    It is depressing that the Western Curriculum is such an addictive meme, that the human species has such a vulnerability to its cancer. I suppose part of the global success of US-style capitalism is in part derived from its early edge, a geographical/historical accident, as Jared Diamond argued in Guns, Germs and Steel. I see this as a good example of system behavior over time being highly dependent on initial conditions.

    Perhaps the silver lining in all of this is that the Western Curriculum is cannibalistic, suicidal, and by now quite obviously devouring itself tail first. The critical question is, which will happen first, the self-destruction of the meme or its destruction of the resource base that human species needs to survive.

    To pursue the positive outcomes scenario a bit, here are some potential or even likely results of an early demise of industrial civilization:

    1. A sharp decline in the depletion of nonrenewables and associated pollutions (the source and sink management problems intrinsic to industrial capitalism). For example, the desperate attempt to keep the ‘american way of life’ going with large scale alternative energy projects would peter out quickly. This seems to be happening already in Europe, where such projects got an early start, and are now mostly stalled.

    2. Fewer products to feed the manufacture of consumer desire, hence these substitute gratifications may give way to more meaningful ones.

    3. The depopulation of cities beyond a sustainable size, the subsequent decline of the imperial grip of these centers of power on exploited peripheries, and a relative decentralization of power in all its manifestations.

    4. Diminished capacity for the mass murder of modern total warfare, including the war against other species that is driving the current wave of mass extinctions.

    5. A return to more localized subsistence economies and the strengthened communities that they engender.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Karl, It really is depressing, but not surprising. Although when watching the menagerie here, it is hard not to laugh as well as cry. The behaviors are so new, they are comical. And you are correct, it is cannibalistic; I look at it like an Uruboros consuming its own tale. It is difficult for me, because as an American in “paris” I am expected to both set an example of “civilized” behavior, and to comment intelligently on the “way forward.” In fact, this is what the piece represents; my intellectual contribution to the future civilizing activity of the people living in Altai Krai… god help me! Again, your points are right on. sandy

    • Disaffected says:

      My only issue is with #4. Diminished overall capacity for mass murder due to modern warfare? I suppose. But seeing as we’ve (the world for the most part, not just the U.S., although definitely thanks to the U.S.) already stockpiled a few million times over the capacity to kill us all, I don’t think that’s a consideration. And the toxic “land mines” we’ve left all over the planet of whatever kind, many not even currently appreciated?

      I think I have to side with Guy McPherson and other climatologists/environmentalists and say that we don’t even know the magnitude of the damage we’ve done yet, but from what we do know, we can’t even begin to assess the damage realistically just yet. And that’s the optimistic assessment! Support? How many ways can things go wrong vs how many ways can they go right?

      And for what it’s worth, I think “localized subsistence economies” in the aftermath are a temporary fix/pipe dream at best. But of course, I could be wrong.

      Bottom line, almost certainly NONE of this is going to play out exactly like we think it will. Cheers!

  2. Disaffected says:

    Excellent post kC. I assume that any new found Russian “prosperity” must be based on “the wonders on modern finance” – aka debt – just as the modern American wealth revolution was and is as well. One of the few basic lessons I’ve gathered from economics during my recent indoctrination into the ways and means of the business world, is that debt-based consumption is little more than pulling future consumption forward into the present – for a price. Not a difficult concept to understand, but one which is conveniently ignored by academics and rubes alike who fall under the spell of the magic of the exponential growth function. Thus, we’ve all been effectively conditioned over the last century or so to literally “believe in magic,” albeit of a mathematical, pseudo-scientific kind. Pseudo-scientific because all of the equations (and the mathematicians as well for that matter!) were borrowed from the natural sciences, where they demonstrably did apply to observable, real world phenomena, and applied to totally arbitrary and man made financial constructs, which exist nowhere in nature. Voila! A totally man-made and invented alternate universe which justified (with a little help from a seemingly inexhaustible energy source) not only the total rape and pillaging of each other, but the entire eco-system as well.

    For what it’s worth, I saw the same process at work in Europe when I was there as a young “Empire Builder” some 20 odd years ago. Even then, as a young stupid-ass serving the forces of the Empire, I was struck by the cultural differences. Germany and France so “decidedly naive and old-world” compared to the rat-race I had just come from. Alas, the French were right even back then (the Disney Paris thing was momentarily an issue, as was McDonald’s). American culture is quite rightly resisted at every front, because it is completely corrupting in every sense of the word. AND, it corrupts completely, erasing, usurping, transforming, and negating all culture that went before it. Good stuff, huh?

    And in the end, THAT’S what fundamentalists of ALL stripes have their knickers in a knot about, and which all of the powers that be and their acolytes, sycophants, and devotees will never understand. There is a better way of life than this current suicidal madness that we’ve chosen, although it might very well be too late to choose it at this late date. Nonetheless, continuing on our current course is only going to make things (appropriately) exponentially worse, exponentially sooner for all.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Increasingly on debt financing. Absolutely. Particularly at the consumer level, small business loans, and mortgages. Even shoe stores advertise buying on credit. But still, it is an economy that runs on cash and bank transfers – not checks and credit cards.

      • Disaffected says:

        A rhetorical question. Of course the stores’ sales rely on credit at the point of sale. As do the store’s inventory, as do their regional warehouses’, as do their distributors’, as do their world-wide producers’, as do their regional national managers’, as do their world-wide corporate managers’. CREDIT! IT MAKES THE WORLD GO ‘ROUND!

        • kulturcritic says:

          Your assumption is culturally biased, DA. Almost nothing works on credit systematically here…. NOTHING. There are only now credit card terminals in some stores; but they do not always work; and they don’t always accept different banks cards. The general economy works on cash, and bank transfers by and large. Even at the point of sales in most stores… cash is the currency of choice. But the businesses are TEMPTING people with the illusion of freedom; buy now, enjoy those new shoes; pay later!

          • Disaffected says:

            Well, that’s encouraging at least. Sounds like where we were 20-30 years ago or so. I remember my first couple of TVs ($250-$500) I bought on store credit, and even my first real car back in ’82 from a good ol’ boy down in South Georgia on store credit for all of $1,200. Had to make payments in person in cash on the first of the month every month or risk the power of the law. And in South Georgia at the time, that meant something! Ahh, those were the days!

            Sounds like you all have some wiggle room left yet!

  3. feelitoff says:

    Did you decide to post it after you had been waiting for your beer for 15 minutes in the empty bar?

    • kulturcritic says:

      Do you not understand that I think a little more systematically than you are giving me credit for? Do you also not see that this is an article I prepared for delivery at a conference; and that I have been dealing with these issues in Altai for 8 years? Come on, Artur… use your brain! As a matter of fact, you of all people, living here and speaking English, should be able to add something valuable to the discussion, and not simply throw out stupid one-liners!

  4. Disaffected says:

    Sorry, but just had to pull forward a relevant thought previously posted that may or may not be relevant to the post at hand, but is nonetheless relevant overall (thanks Brian Bowman:

    Sandy’s post has got me thinking about Robert Pirsig‘s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance insights again, namely:

    The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.

    (If true, that law is not a minor flaw in scientific reasoning. The law is completely nihilistic. It is a catastrophic logical disproof of the general validity of all scientific method! If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge.)

    My response:

    The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite?
    YES, it is! Absolutely! That’s why we live in an “open” universe. ANYTHING is possible!

    The law is completely nihilistic, aka “without meaning or purpose?”
    No, it’s merely without currently understood meaning or purpose. And it’s true, the number of hypotheses CAN NEVER be known, never mind tested, and the results of any particular experiment is therefore ALWAYS inconclusive.

    If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge.
    NO, the goal of the scientific method is not to “PROVE” anything, but merely to DISPROVE all of the alternatives.

    Not to say that the scientific method may or may not be full of shit, but it’s the best thing we’ve got so far.

    Thanks to Brian Bowman, because he was simply prompting us all to re-remember what we already knew anyway.

    • Disaffected says:

      Sorry for all the hyper-link bullshit. Guess I missed a tag, even after all the spell checking.

      • I’m thinking of something else along these lines, DA, just to see what you come up with again. Here’s my question for you:

        Why do we say today it isn’t science if it can’t be quantified with numbers, when the “ultimate empiricists” don’t even have numbers in their language?

        “The Pirahã, who in some ways are the ultimate empiricists—they need evidence for every claim you make—helped me realize that I hadn’t been thinking very scientifically about my own beliefs.”

        A Talk With Daniel L. Everett

  5. Kevin Frost says:

    Hi Sandy, Kulturcritiks; Greetings from Tasmania

    First post. Good citation from Dostoyevsky, very good. He serves witness to the truth that 6000 years of education haven’t sufficed to put a lid on the old culture. It’s still there. The overt narrative of history is that in the past there was community, but now we have society. Everything’s getting better all the time. There’s this before and after assumption that’s not quite true. I’m gratified that you, and an increasing number of commentators, recognise kinship culture as the incubus of relational, mutualist ethics, what’s good in us basically. That’s actually a real piece of progress. When I was at university in the 90s nobody was talking like this. But these days we hear more and more of this.

    It takes a fair bit of mutualism and more, outright sacrifice, to crank out a functioning capitalist. First mom has to give birth to said kulturcriminal, this is after months of labour. Then they have to be fed, diapers changed, diapers and clothes washed, taught to speak, maybe think, educated, and on and on, you know; we all do. All this is unpaid effort; there’s no deal here. Even the background idea that the kiddies will take care of parents in old age is little more than a foggy background assumption, if it’s there at all. And as for this crackpot, pseudoscientific anthropological idea that the primate big dicks score the hot chicks and litter the world with population statistics because they have some primal urge to reproduce themselves and so eternalise their egos, I mean, they really say stuff like this. This is university level. I’ve got a doctorate in one of the social sciences; none of these are to be taken seriously.

    But to return to the point, the idiom of History, progress, the Whigish grand narrative of before and after, from community to society is … not quite the case. Although it’s clear that the culture of community is chronically ill while the idiocies of society are becoming stronger every day, yet the real relation between community and society is arguably parasitic, that is, the latter is parasitically bloated with the blood of the former. Just a thought; hope it helps. Best wishes, Kevin Frost

    • kulturcritic says:

      Kevin, welcome! And thanks for this excellent contribution… and from Tasmania, no less. That is quite a trek away, maybe ever further than Siberia, where I hibernate. Yes, caring and sharing was fundamental to maintenance of community for our genus. Then something happen, and the pyramids of a new and emergent civil society got erected, literally and figuratively; hierarchy and competition for the limited positions of status became the new watchword. We forgot that sharing and egalitarian community is basic. But, it was easy when there was an open and understandable relations among members of the tribe and clan. It becomes more problematic with the increases in size that were concomitant with big agriculture and urban life. Thanks again, Kevin. best, sandy

  6. Kevin Frost says:

    Hi Sandy,

    ‘maybe even further than Siberia…’? Well, Siberia is heavily laden with symbolic significance, so I think we should, in all fairness, assign a distantiating value here, your favour. On the other hand Tassie has this going for it: I live about 20 minutes from the Antarctic Ocean, which I find comforting. Got my back to the world; suits me. A toss up.

    ‘Then something happened …’ I’ll try to dig up a photocopy of .. I think its called the Agana Sutra, Buddhist sutra, which basically corroborates the anthropological story you frequently cite. I’ll try to recall the main points pertinent to this discussion though the sutra covers a lot of ground. There’s a long, very long era of gathering (no mention of hunting) grounded in an environment of quick growing and fast maturing edibles, abundant and easy for the taking. Everything’s fine. But subsequently some people start to horde food. Instead of eating as you go, they collect as much as they can take back to their cubby holes. Coincidently the abundantly yielding vegetation dies off and is replaced with more parsimonious varieties. It’s as though the veggies start becoming non-compliant with the new hoarding regime. You’d have to read the original. It’s not spelled out but the causal connection between this moral shift with humans, a new grasping energy, coincides with a new disposition of things in the vegetable world. Things go on in the direction of increasing scarcity till we get to the point of agriculture, where laborious cultivation succeeds the wanderings of the gatherers, but not quite yet. The paradigmatic moment arrives when gatherers gather up cultivated foods eliciting cries of thievery accompanied with violence. At this point monarchy is determined upon: the ‘Lord of the fields’ has arrived.

    Now there’s another sutra, almost identical but proceeding from a different question. The above sutra was presented as an answer to a specific question: ‘what was the origin of the Ksatryia?’ The other sutra proceeds from the question: what was the origin of the Brahmans? In this one the same story is retold but continues on to note that under the new monarchic regime there were people who weren’t happy with things and basically want to go ‘back to a state of nature’ as we say, and they did, they departed from the settled places to return to the forests to live. The sutra concludes by distinguishing between the two types of Brahmans: those who live within the forests living on nuts, roots and such, and those who live on the edge of settled places who get by with palm readings, divinations and the like. The inference is suggested, though not spelled out, that the former type is the better. Well, I think so to but instead of doing the meditation practices I spend too much time on the net reading the best of the fortune tellers, people like D. Orlov & Co.

    So I’m pretty much in agreement here on the main points but I’d like to go a bit further with ‘it was easy when ….. It becomes more problematic with increases in size …’. I can think of a significant counterexample, traditional China. It was big, wealthy, productive, powerful, imperial and all, and yet the kinship culture of which we speak was strongly established in both the country and the cities to. There’s a lot that could be said about all this but this post is getting long the hour here is late, almost 2:30. Maybe write some more tomorrow. Best, Kevin Frost.

  7. bmiller says:

    I’ll be interested to hear how the report is received: tar and feathers or applause? I find it a bit depressing that your neighbors are so easily seduced in such short order by baubles. The way you have described the culture in the past is that it seems remarkably vulnerable with little in the way of resistance. Is that accurate? Or do you see willingness by some to sustain “older ways”.
    My best,

  8. Kevin Frost says:

    I was going to say something about China but maybe that can wait. Just reread your Cautionary Note but this time noticed the bottom note concerning the address, which you haven’t given yet. So this weeks posting is a sort of preview? Are you inviting critical comments? I thought it started weak but ended strong. If this one is a ‘work in progress’ I’d say more but if it’s finished and this is what you want to say then I’d guess that it won’t be a tar and feathering but rather ignored. But just guessing. I live in an anglosphere where a kind of studied ignorance has been raised to the level of a refined art. Best, Kevin Frost

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