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Optimize! Oil, Labor, and Authoritarian Neoliberalism in Kazakhstan

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 August 2023

Maurizio Totaro*
Department of Conflict and Development Studies, University of Ghent, Gent, Belgium


Following the 2014–2015 oil price crisis, service companies in Kazakhstan went through a process of industrial restructuring centered on workforce reduction and a concomitant increase of labor outsourcing. Taking the restructuring – or “optimization” – of state-owned service companies in the region of Mangystau as a starting point, this paper illustrates the heterogenous precarization effects and forms of precarity catalyzed by the process. Taking a multidimensional approach, the paper describes and analyses the effects of precarization in both socio-economic and political terms, as well as the implications for the production of differentiated laboring subjectivities. It situates the ethnographic trajectories of workers within the framework of Kazakhstan's authoritarian neoliberalism, highlighting the punitive and pastoral techniques of goverment deployed in the restructuring of the regional oil complex. In the first part, the article describes how precarization was experienced by workers as “slavery”, entailing the loss of social recognition as well as the intensification of economic exploitation and political domination, heightening their exposure to social and bodily vulnerability. The second section looks instead at the workings of a governmental agency in its effort to remake redundant workers into small business owners through the acquisition of entrepreneurial skills and the abandonment of the Soviet “dependency mindset”. The third and last section of the article concentrates on the individual trajectory of a dismissed worker joining a multi-level marketing scheme in order to cleanse himself from the bodily and social toxicity of precarized work in the oil industry.

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Copyright © International Labor and Working-Class History, Inc., 2023

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4. During this time, I was based in Aqtau, sharing a flat with a research assistant, Laura Berdikhojayeva. The vast majority of the interviews for this paper have been conducted together, either in Kazakh or in Russian. Laura's help has been paramount for translating from Kazakh and subsequently transcribing the interviews. I am also grateful for the many insights that emerged from our daily conversations and for her commitment to the research. Fieldwork was supported by the Innovative Training Network “Caspian,” funded by an MSCA grant of the European Union in the context of Horizon 2020 (Grant agreement no: 642709).

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