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BOOK REVIEW: “Welcome to the desert of post-socialism!”

Note from the LeftEast editors: This review of Igor Stiks and Srecko Horvath’s edited volume “Welcome to the desert of post-socialism: radical politics after Yugoslavia” (Verso, 2015)  has first appeared on LeftVoice under the title Yugoslavia after Capitalist Restoration. It has been reprinted with the permission of the author.

by Philippe Alcoy

Photo: Revolution Permanente
Photo: Revolution Permanente

Released in January 2015 by Verso Books, Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism: Radical Politics after Yugoslavia is a collective work coordinated by two of the best-known leftist intellectuals in the region, Croatian Srećko Horvat and Bosnian Igor Štiks. The book aims to break down certain prejudices that weigh on Eastern Europe and especially in the Balkans after the collapse of the USSR and the disappearance of the “socialist bloc,” in an effort to re-think “radical politics” for this part of the continent.

As the editors say in the introduction, “These regions have been seen as a lost cause for progressive forces after 1989 and prone only to right-wing politics and extremism, support of pro-US and pro-NATO policies, and unconditional surrender to neoliberalism” (p. 3).

Twenty-five years after the process of “transition”, this work sheds light on the harmful social, political and economical consequences on the working class of the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Another objective is to analyze the struggles and the resistance that existed (and continue to be) of the working class, youth, and other oppressed sectors. The authors also point out the emergence of what they call, “new political subjectivities”.

Twenty-five years after the beginning of capitalist restoration, the book is also about exposing the “unfulfilled promises” of “democracy” and about economic and social progress. The contributors to the book lay the foundations for a critical discourse of the endless transition, which ultimately serves only to legitimize the intervention of imperialist powers and the application of reactionary policies in the name of “modernization” and the “route to Europe”.

In this context and as a consequence, social mobilizations have been developing for several years in the Balkans and Eastern Europe (seehere, here and here).

As stated in the book’s introduction, “All these examples [of protest] show that for the first time we have more than anti-government rhetoric per se – instead there is a true anti-regime sentiment. Not only the state but the whole apparatus on which the current oligarchy is based is called into question by self-organized citizens (albeit chaotically) (…) They also compel us to understand the nature not only of state institutions, in their weakness or failure, but the nature of post-socialist regime (almost) cemented over the last two decades but susceptible to cracking under the weight of their own contradictions— such as, for example, rampant poverty” (p. 12).

Back to the Tito’s era

The book is divided into four parts, each comprising three chapters. The first part is devoted to the “socialist Yugoslavia”, Tito’s model of self-organization, its crisis and the “capitalist disaster” that occurred in the 1990s during the process of transition, its impact on trade unionism and on the working class.

This historical background is actually fundamental to a clear vision of the issues affecting the region today because many elements of Yugoslavia’s “final crisis” were present during Tito’s era. In this sense, we can talk about the growing debt towards international creditors in the 1970s, when the Western banks were eager to recycle the “petrodollars”, the “liberal” reforms that were increasing individualistic tendencies and regional particularities, etc.

But it is Tito’s self-organization model itself, introduced in 1950, which was a source of problems often leading to a weakening of the bonds of solidarity between the different republics of the federation. This trend accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s, after the introduction of a new income-sharing system in 1958, in which workers gained the right to wages based on their affiliation with a work collective: “This meant that, since the workplaces were social property, the worker collectives had the right to run and benefit from their workplace, but within certain legal limitations, like paying various taxes according to government regulations, which were often justified by references to the common good or national interest. (…) Distribution was not according to ‘work’ but according to ‘results of work’. (…) That encouraged competition among workers not only within but also between workplaces. (…) Struggles over state investment and economic policies were increasingly regionally contested, which meant that workplaces tended to identify their interests with their enterprise management or the regional government of their republics rather than with other workplaces or other republics of the federation” (p. 28-29).

The privileges of republican bureaucracies, based on regional networks in the mid 1980s would contradict the policies of the central government based in Belgrade that, under pressure from international creditors in the country, advocated for a re-centralization policy of the State. In that same decade, there was a rise of workers’ struggles against austerity measures and the crisis.

Subsequently, the beginning of the process of capitalist restoration accentuated these trends, later causing the terrible wars of the 1990s, the complete subordination to the imperialist powers of the EU and the US, the closure of public enterprises, the rise of unemployment, inequality and mass privatization.

The bitter fruits of the “transition”

The second and the third parts of the book deal more directly with the “transition” period, or the process of capitalist restoration in the former Yugoslavia.

An important focus is the “winners and losers” of the process. Thus, “we, people of former Yugoslavia, learned – or should have – that transition also means the evolution of thieves into businessmen. From the EU’s perspective, Balkan thieves are much more desirable as partners than Balkan Reds. This is because thieves respect ‘sacred’ private property. They value it so highly that they risked their own freedom to accumulate property illegally, while Reds want the freedom to take that property away from them. And when thieves succeeded in gaining control over the desired property, no one was more interested in establishing a legal system, maintaining the new status quo and averting any potential revolution. Those who have accumulated capital illegally now have all the legal instruments at their disposal to protect that property. Thieves are thus the main supporters of the current system because no one is more determined to prevent the emergence of ideas about the redistribution of wealth” (p. 147).

Throughout these two parts the authors outline in their own way a criticism of the “false promises” of liberal democracy and of the prejudices against Balkan populations about their supposed “lack of maturity” to build “true democracies” and to join the EU. On this last question, one of the objectives of this part of the book is to deconstruct the idea of that joining the EU is the only viable path for the countries of the region.

Furthermore, this process of “transition” is identified as a counter-revolution with harmful consequences for the working class: “The anti-bureaucratic revolution was really a counter-revolution. Immediately after installing the new communist leadership, it swapped class rhetoric for ethno-nationalism. (…) The Yugoslav wars and the sanctions were exploited to accelerate what lay to the heart of the dissolution of Yugoslavia – the transition from socialism to capitalism. The socio-economic processes of the last quarter of a century are today ideologically photoshopped and proclaimed to be the entry into an age of parliamentary democracy, transition, independence, and integration into the EU and NATO, but their real ramifications are quite different: widespread fascist tendencies in society, war, growing unemployment, the eradication of workers’ rights, privatizations (a synonym for plunder), commercialization of the health and education sectors, flourishing inequality, deindustrialization and desecularisation” (p. 145).

In such a context it is not surprising that a feeling of “yugo-nostalgia” or “tito-stalgia” develops as a form of challenging the current system. However, this does not mean that a “return” to the old system is concretely proposed today by any political force or even this “nostalgia” implies an uncritical claim of the past: “Titostalgia is more a rejection of the current political situation and leaders than an uncritical glorification of the politics of several decades ago and of Tito himself. It can, therefore, be understood as a protest, or an effective provocation, or even a defense, particularly on the part of young people against the aggressive imposition of new ideological trends (e.g. nationalism, the dictate of humble accession to Europe, neoliberalism, conservatism, traditionalism, clericalism, the restoration of the old political situation)” (p. 189).

A rise of struggles

However “nostalgia” was not the only reaction of the masses in the region. In fact, since 2008- the onset of the global economic crisis-the Balkan countries were strongly affected and attacks against workers’ living standards have increased. This has only deepened the crisis of legitimacy of the governments in the region and increased workers’ and youth struggles. This rise in struggle is what the fourth section of the book focuses on.

In 2009 there was a wave of workers’ struggles in Serbia involving around 30,000 workers from 40 to 45 factories. There were many and various forms of strikes and actions like the kidnapping of bosses, street blockages, hunger strikes and even desperate tactics like self-harm and suicide. The fight against the neoliberal government’s measures went hand in hand with a great distrust towards some traditional trade unions that the workers perceived as linked with the bosses. This is how in August 2009 the Workers’ Protest Coordination Committee was born.

Perhaps one of the most symbolic struggles in Serbia (and the region) was the workers’ struggle of Jugoremedija pharmaceutical company in northern Serbia. The fight became especially symbolic because employees were fighting to preserve their jobs against corrupt privatization, which expressed the situation of thousands of workers in the country and in the region. During this long struggle, workers have gone far to establish a “worker-shareholders” type of self-management, something which limited their ability to fight and even created tensions with non-shareholders workers: “Despite this success and the ability of the workers to stabilize and expand production, the situation has remained fragile to this day. The difficult economic situation put heavy strains on the organizational model of Jugoremedija and the division between the worker-shareholders and the ‘ordinary’ workers became more visible. The latter were less willing to accept stagnating wage and working overtime for a factory which did not belong to them”(p. 207-208).

There are inherent contradictions of the organizational model that employees have chosen to set up as a form of “self-management” in that it creates conflicts between workers. This, along with a difficult economic situation and political pressure have led to the end of this experience.

Another important phenomenon in the region was the Croatian student movement that since 2008 leads struggles that influenced beyond sectors far beyond youth. In fact, “On 7 May 2008, they organized the first protest at the University of Zagreb with some 5.000 participants. (…) With their demand for ‘free education’ and a critique of neoliberalism and privatization, the students were attacking the political mainstream. Even the process of EU accession was being discussed critically. For the first time in more than twenty years, the pillars of neoliberalism and capitalism were openly challenged and put into question. As a result, the student protest, practices and perspectives have opened up spaces far beyond the field of higher education” (p. 213-214).

But it is the spring of 2009’s movement and the occupation of Zagreb Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences that had the most lasting impression. With the methods of direct democracy and the cooperation with workers and peasants during the struggle, the movement has undoubtedly influenced other movements that occurred in the region, such as in Bosnia in February 2014 where we saw the unity between the workers and youth as well as the emergence of “plenums”.

Some final observations

There is no doubt that this book is a very important initiative for the region and beyond. Trying to fight a battle of ideas in a region that is devastated and infested with reactionary ideas of nationalism, clericalism and neoliberalism is not a simple task. However, it is essential to lay the foundations to recover the collective memory of the exploited and the oppressed masses in the former Yugoslavian region, and more widely in Eastern Europe, in order to put emancipatory ideas on the offensive.

From this point of view, the book starts from a catastrophic situation, a true “desert” of emancipatory anti-capitalist and revolutionary ideas. And because of this, we feel that the book is crossed by a kind of ideological eclecticism in which some of the authors have more radical perspectives than others. In the title itself we see this ambiguity: to talk about “radical politics” does not necessarily indicate whether one refers to anti-neoliberalism or some type of anti-capitalism. The aim of a socialist system is never put forward.

Furthermore, perhaps the greatest gap in the book is the absence of a chapter on the social revolt in February 2014 in Bosnia-Herzegovina, despite its explosive nature and short duration, without a doubt it is one of the most important social movements in the region in last 25 years. It involved many issues, from the fight against the privatization of public firms to the denunciation of employers and the political caste’s corruption, to unemployment that especially affects youth. In other words there was an explosive combination between working class, youth and popular sectors which were involved in a movement in which the central axis were class demands, unlike the other movements in the region with more blurred and poly-classist demands.

In the postscript, the editors return to this movement and explain that it took place after the deadline to submit the texts for the book. However, given the importance of this movement and taking into account that the book was published only in January 2015, one can only regret its absence.

Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism is a work that has opened the debate and encourages, in the coming years, the publication of this kind of writings about the space of ex -Yugoslavia and in Eastern Europe in general, which have long been at the center of imperialist propaganda against any idea of transcending capitalism.