Longing for lost agency – Tanja Petrović

This article is part of the regular assembly “New authoritarian tendencies – a legacy of the past?“ of the Cross-border Committee. It brings four perspectives that zero in on the post-Yugoslav space.

Croatian philosopher Boris Buden speaks about post-socialist subjects as children of communism, warning that it is not a metaphor, but a symptom of an imagination in which transition to democracy as a radical reconstruction starts from scratch: ‘Eastern Europe after 1989 resembles a landscape of historical ruins that is inhabited only by children, immature people unable to organise their lives democratically without guidance from another.’

This image of post-socialist individuals as helpless, immature and dependent children resonates very often with the ways people in the former Yugoslav societies are approached from very different positions of power: by representatives on the ‘international community’, who see these societies as tabula rasa, a polygon to exercise all sorts of social and political experiments, as well as by new local elites, who place the responsibility for the disastrous economic situation on citizens themselves, accusing them for inability or unwillingness to adapt to the new, market-driven reality, which demands individual initiative and self-reliance. Very often, the reasons for this inability or unwillingness ‘to take care of oneself’ are found in the problematic legacy of socialism, when people lived believing that the state, or someone else, should and will take care of them.

Such view on socialism not only supports the rapid dismantling of the welfare state in the post-Yugoslav societies, it often serves as a handy explanation for all sorts of reactionary political attitudes found in this region from the 1990s onwards. The ‘children of communism’, the argument goes, not only need guidance, protection and supervision, but also strive for a strong, all-controlling leader who would take care of everything – an authoritative father figure which they had in Josip Broz Tito during Yugoslav socialism. In this light, any kind of nostalgia or positive attitude towards socialism is understood as a sign of moral weakness, irrationality and inability to find one’s way in the ongoing social and economic transformations. It is seen as a ‘result of a feeling of having lost out in the transition from communism to democracy,’ as political scientists Joakim Ekman and Jonas Linde put it.

But if we take the positive references of citizens of the post-Yugoslav societies more seriously, in line with what American anthropologist Dominic Boyer suggests, we will see that when people talk about the positive aspects of their socialist experiences it is not only about the lost safety net, social welfare and having someone to take care of everything. It is much more about a lost sense of agency and self-perception of being an actor in both one’s own life and in the broader economic and social processes. In contrast with what prevalent neoliberal and ‘transitional’ political discourses on socialism suggest, citizens perceived themselves as agents during socialism much more than today, when they feel incapable of transforming their desires and visions into action. In the case of post-socialist Serbia, Maja Petrović Šteger describes how her interviewees ‘would often state that the everyday facts of their lives made it hard for them to imagine themselves actively participating in remaking, or just in contesting, the political and economic fabric in contemporary Serbia.’

That is why rare and extraordinary events in which citizens manage to resume some degree of agency – such as the mass mobilisations for extending help and solidarity during the disastrous floods in the region in May 2014, or the citizens’ plenums as forms of direct democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina – are abundant with references to the forms of social organisation and action that were characteristic of Yugoslav socialism.

Seen in this light, as longing for a lost agency, nostalgia for socialism is not a reactionary, irrational and pro-totalitarian sentiment, but a practice with a mobilising, legitimising, and even an emancipatory character. It is a reminder not only of the past, but also of the values necessary for imagining the future, such as both an intergenerational and a universal solidarity, responsibility, communality, the value of work as such, and perhaps, above all, a personal and a collective autonomy.

Tanja Petrović is a senior research fellow and head of the Institute of Culture and Memory Studies at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences. She is the author of Yuropa: the Yugoslav Heritage and the Politics of the Future in Post-Yugoslav Societies (2012).