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New authoritarian tendencies – a legacy of the past?

Political parties that serve as employment agencies and hence engender and perpetuate entrenched corruption and clientelism, weak state institutions, political control over the media, rampant inequality, dismantling of the welfare state. The ‘authoritarian temptation’ proved too big for most of the new post-Yugoslav elites to resist. While across the political spectrum, to varying degrees, there have been prominent tendencies of portraying the socialist past as a deviation and essentially criminalising it, neglecting it or purposefully erasing it from the public space and public history/memory, there has been an uncritical appropriation in intellectual and media discourse of a linear, simplistic narrative – common in the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe – ascribing all contemporary negative phenomena to the ‘totalitarian’ socialist past.

The Yugoslav successor states have not been immune to what can be termed nesting anti-communism. In Macedonia, all the while insisting on the undemocratic nature of the socialist ‘regime’, the ruling political elite engineered (through a highly controversial Lustration Law, the establishment of a Museum to the victims of communism and the deliberate destruction of the socialist/modernist architectural legacy in the capital) a hegemonic official memory regime which in many ways mirrors the worst practices of the system they seek to demonise. Nevertheless, the question of whether and to what extent the new authoritarian political culture in the region is a legacy of the one-party, socialist past is worth asking.

Generally, and in the Macedonian case more specifically, ascribing the blame for contemporary ills and for a 21st century authoritarianism to Tito, his comrades, or ‘communism’ is nothing but an easy way of self-vindication for the appallingly corrupt and irresponsibly elites. What is shocking is that in some crucial aspects, Macedonia in 2015 is doing far worse that it did 40 years ago. The income inequality (Gini) index rose from 28.1 in 1998 to 43.6; almost a third of the population lives below the poverty line; the country plummeted from 34th in 2009 to 117th place in 2015 in the World Press Freedom Index; around a quarter of the population emigrated abroad; and it has become impossible to find employment without connections and party membership (contrary to popular opinion that even in socialist Yugoslavia Party membership was crucial, as a matter of fact, the League of Communist of Yugoslavia for most of its existence had around 1 million members).

Pointing out some of the positive features of the socialist period does not imply an uncritical glorification or idealisation of that system; it is above all an attempt to emphasise the fact that what was positive in it (the emancipatory practices, workers’ rights, social protection and solidarity, equality, social mobility, relative meritocracy, active foreign policy and highly competent diplomacy) has been severely diminished or completely destroyed, while that which was negative (political authoritarianism, personality cult, lack of freedom of speech) has been amplified and ‘perfected’. Hence, Nancy Fraser’s vision of ‘another “postsocialism”’ – ‘one that incorporates, rather than repudiates, the best of socialism’ – still seems pertinent.

This assembly brings four perspectives that zero in on the post-Yugoslav space:

Assembly editor: Ljubica Spaskovska

Photo: Ljubica Spaskovska

 

Longing for lost agency

Part of the regular assembly “New authoritarian tendencies – a legacy of the past?“. Author: Tanja Petrović

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.