This piece not only reveals the energetic existence of emancipatory thought and struggle in the Balkans but suggests alternative ways of conceiving a different kind of Europe. And, yes, labour is present, even if you have to wait for it toward the end.
Now read on...
Zagreb 2012 Subversive Forum
The 2012 Subversive Forum Report:
The subject of the first panel today was ‘What’s Wrong With Europe?’ and there were no shortage of answers. Samir Amin claimed Europe was "the enemy of democracy"; Francine Mestrum argued that "Europe does not exist except as a geographical entity." Bernard Cassen was of the opinion that Europe was primarily a notion that only resonated with elites. Given this bleak diagnosis, it seemed extremely fitting that the walls and floor of the room were painted black. Many of the panelists touched on the problem of the lack of popular legitimacy for European institutions, though Mestrum made the instructive point that it is not European politics that interferes with national politics, but vice versa- it is the member states that decide the composition of EU policy, such as with what some perceive as German hegemony. As for whether there could be such as a thing as a ‘European consciousness’, Bernard Cassen thought it would take up to three generations to build, due to historical and linguistic differences. He suggested Italian as an alternative lingua franca to English; my neighbour muttered, “What about Bosnian?”
The next panel discussed forms of ‘European Resistance’, and considered the implications of recent events in Greece and France. With respect to Hollande’s victory, Elisabeth Gauthier said, "There is an open door, but nothing is done," and argued that skepticism regarding European institutions does not preclude faith in Europe per se. Thomas Seibert spoke on the need to show that the left has answers to the crisis. “We have to create a good chaos that attracts the people,” he said.
The logical next question, ‘Is another Europe possible?’ was addressed by the third panel of the day. Though there was a general belief that other, better versions of Europe were possible, Alessandra Mecozzi admitted that the weakness of a number of key institutions, such as the European Confederation of Trade Unions, mean that this is far from immediate possibility. Carl-Henrik Fredriksson argued that one alternative to existing European institutions was for interconnected public spheres to achieve transnational solidarity.
The evening featured excellent talks from two highly eloquent speakers. Saskia Sassen spoke about how the wave of urban protests of the last few years, ranging from anti-austerity demonstrations, to the Occupy movement, and the events of the Arab Spring has (and continues to) affect the dynamics of power and territory. She argued that “when territory exits conventional framings, it becomes institutionally mobile, nomadic and can alter the meaning of nation-state membership.”
Slavoj Žižek’s talk was a characteristically bravura performance that was much appreciated by its capacity audience. Though he touched on many subjects, one of the most resonant was the idea that present events can only be understood from the future. He quoted Pascal’s assertion that miracles appear only to those who believe in God, then drew parallels with events like the Tahrir Square demonstrations. He argued that who can see the future in these events are those that already believe in them. A similar line of reasoning explains why apparent sociopaths are such quasi-heroic figures in popular culture- it is because these are the men of the future, even if we cannot fully believe in them yet.
This was a question posed by the first panel, ‘The role of the European Left’ and one that has two sides. On the one hand, there is the issue of whether the left can create a meaningful solidarity with the Greek plight; on the other, there is what may happen if we fail in this task: that we will all end up in the same socio-economic condition as Greece. Etienne Lebeau, G. M. Támas, Carl-Henrik Fredriksson, Walter Baier, and Alessandra Mecozzi together provided a stimulating discussion of the issues that face the European Left at present, one which did not underestimate the difficulties of the task ahead.
The second panel, ‘Representative or direct democracy?’, discussed various forms of political participation and organisation. Costas Douzinas argued that Europe is dying and that Greece is the future of Europe. Referring to the recent Greek elections results, he argued that Syriza wouldn’t have succeeded without the citizens’ revolts since 2008. Arguing in favour of direct democracy, he said that direct democracy is not only about protesting, gathering and debating, but about the take over of the state institutions by people. Barbara Steiner stressed the necessity to exclude radical, xenophobic groups in order to build a fairer, inclusive and just society and system. Giovanni Allegretti drew on his personal experience with groups that occupied public spaces and criticised the egoist left for insisting on talking only to like-minded people and activists. He insisted on the need to broaden the mass of people participating in democracy. Peter Vermeersch and David Van Reybrouck argued that the Belgium’s inability to elect a government for more than a year was a crisis of democracy. They also presented an opportunity for political innovation in the form of the G1000 Forum, an alternative form of citizens’ participation in politics and discussions about the future of the country. In general, the panelists concluded that there is more to democracy than elections.
The delayed start of the afternoon session prompted one audience member to angrily ask the same question people are asking throughout Europe. ‘’Who is in charge here?” she demanded. The panel provided a useful overview of the situation in so-called peripheral countries, in particular Slovenia, Portugal, Cyprus, and Romania. There was certainly ‘good news’ in some cases— Peter Damo argued that the new government of the Social Liberal Union is attempting to deal with the reduction in salaries and the rise in VAT—but in others, such as in the cases of Portugal (as detailed by Nuno Serra) and Cyprus (Nicolas Defteras) the main positive seemed to be that the bad news- the dire state of the economy –was so awful it was bound to provoke resistance. As for the issue of the relation of the centre to the periphery, one questioner summed up the feelings of resentment toward the EU (and its perceived German domination) in the following joke about a German official who goes to Greece on vacation. When the border guard asks his nationality, the man replies, “German.” “Occupation?” asks the guard. “No! No! I’m just here for a holiday!” replies the German official.
Tonight’s roundtable between Bernard Cassen, Samir Amin, and Eric Toussaint explored the roots of the World Social Forum, and then discussed Occupy and other social movements. Amin argued that there is a contradiction between the strength of resistance and the result of electoral processes - the latter have an inherently conservative quality, as in Egypt and France, where mass popular movements seem likely to result in less radical system of governance.
In his closing lecture on ‘The Rotten Heart of Europe’, Tariq Ali provided a witty, astute, and historically aware survey of what Europe was, how it developed, and what it is now. He began by arguing that from its inception, Europe has had two competing views associated with it, the purely economic model associated with Hayek, and the federal, political Europe of Jean Monet, conceived as an independent, non-aligned entity during the Cold War. Though this latter view held primacy at first, there can be no doubt that Europe today is far closer to Hayek’s vision. Ali went on to provide a devastating critique of the moral failings of the European elites, in particular their role in rendition and torture. He also castigated them for their role in the breakup of Yugoslavia - he proposed that the recognition of Slovene independence played an important part in this process, along with internal events. During questions, he went on to argue that one way forward in Europe is for the growth of regional power blocks, such as around the North Atlantic and in the Balkans. His talk offered a passionate and compelling argument for the need for a social and economic vision to counter that of the extreme right, and in defense of socialism he argued that whatever its many weaknesses and failings, it was a project that did not deserve to be wholly characterised by austerity, scarcity and an ‘exultation of the nation’. He urged the audience not to forget that under most socialist regimes there was also a crude equality of sorts, in terms of education, housing, and health. The dictatorial sides are not to be missed, he argued, but the social side is.
The third day’s panels were devoted to the discussion of how a notion of the Commons might suggest ways out of the Eurocrisis. During the first panel, ‘From Crisis to the Commons’, Giovanni Allegretti presented illustrative examples of the power of the Commons from Sweden and other countries, and ably demonstrated (lest there be any doubt) that the power of communal action is far more than a ‘romantic notion of something that never existed’. Saki Bailey made a compelling argument for using the legal opportunities present within every European countries’ constitution regarding the governance of common resources. In support of this, she cited the case of Aqua Publica in Italy, where 95% of voters were able to vote against the privatisation of water. The convergence of municipal and constitutional law was what made this political movement possible. However, as Vinod Raina reminded us, the reason that the Commons remain contested is as much to do with different worldviews as anything else.
That the Commons is very much a contested area was a pervasive theme of 'Urban Commons – Another City is Possible'. Sonja Leboš, the Chair of the panel, was at pains to stress the urgency of the question, namely that there is much that may be lost from our urban environments. Brigitte Kratzwald offered worrying examples of appropriation from Graz, while a Zagreb activist gave a detailed briefing on the attacks on communal public space and land that have been taking place in Dubrovnik, Pula and on streets in Zagreb only several minutes from the lecture theatre. However, there was some good news. Geert de Pauw talked about the encouraging example of a project that has created affordable housing for migrants in Brussels, where there has been an accommodation crisis that has particularly affected low income families.
The third panel of the day, ‘Owning the Future? Digital Commons and what's ACTA got to do with it?’, revolved around two questions: 1) What do you consider to be the digital commons? and 2) What strategies should we adopt to keep digital commons truly common? N. R. Marcel, while drawing attention to the control of the internet by various governments around the world, argued that it is very important to download, upload and share using the autonomy that the digital infrastructure provides. Mayo Fuster talked about the shift from digital commons to the society of commons, as exemplified by the case of the Indignados in Spain. Talking about the ACTA, Alan Toner criticised the internationally coordinated action to control the use of digital data and products in the name of intellectual property rights.
Many of the themes that emerged during the day came together in the evening’s roundtable panel, ‘Commons in Europe – old or new battleground?’ Costas Douzinas argued that there are new kinds of politics being born, as well as new types of resistance, conflict and subjectivity. These include acting out, martyrdom, and an attempt to create the Common good. Ségolène Pruvot spoke about the ‘European Alternatives’ transnational movement that takes as its staring point the idea that the European vision has been betrayed. She raised questions regarding the justification of representative democracy, such as when a decision must be made but not everyone can take part in the discussion e.g. with many environmental issues. Michael Hardt argued that many struggles aim for the Commons but end up with the public, what he termed ‘a misdirected voyage’. The public is that which is regulated by the state, the private is that which is owned privately, while the Common is that which is not property, and where there is open and shared access. He used the example of social movements in Bolivia, such as the mass movements to prevent the privatization of water and gas. The government that stemmed from these movements has since blocked other struggles from the Commons. There is thus often a need for a double struggle for the Commons, both with the public against private forces, and against the state itself.
The fourth day of the Forum considered the benefits of dialogue and communal action throughout the global and European Left. Srećko Horvat began the first session, ‘Why the World Social Forum, why in the Balkans?’ with an illustrative story about finding books in an abandoned political school which contained a 1983 essay by Samir Amin. He argued that this should remind us that the Balkans once had close connections with progressive intellectuals throughout the world, and it is time these ties were renewed. Igor Stiks went on to argue that the Balkans has an imposed identity as fragmented, provincial, and in conflict. The formation of a Balkan Social Forum offers both the chance, and the responsibility, to challenge this by launching a process of dialogue, action and re-definition. As regards the fragmentation and at times factionalism of the Left, Walter Baier made the point that the diversity of the movement reflects the diversity of the world, and that this is something that cannot be subsumed under a single ideology.
The second session considered ‘The Current Social Situation in the Balkans’ by asking how austerity has been implemented, what have been the consequences, and crucially, what do the different countries have in common? The audience were presented with accounts of the often overlapping experiences of people in Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Bulgaria and Croatia, which continue to be plagued by high unemployment, privatization and flat tax regimes. During the debate the important point was made that austerity in the Balkans needs to be understood in more than just economic terms. In Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia austerity has manifested in nationalist rhetoric and the politicisation of ethnicity, which have been used as a means of distraction by elites in these countries.
This issue was immediately picked up by Danijela Dolenec, the chair of the next panel, ‘In Defense of the Commons’. She argued that though the consideration of nationalism might complicate the picture, this is the only way to promote a solution to the Crisis. The panelists then continued the discussion of the Commons from yesterday’s sessions, firstly Tomislav Medak who presented an expanded definition of the Commons, which included various forms of knowledge, which he argued was encroached on by the same process as resources. Marko Aksentijević argued that public space is a precondition for communality, while Dušica Radojčić described some of the obstacles to building a wider sense of the Commons in Croatia. Tomislav Tomašević responded by suggesting that there’s a need to build a broader base of support than those on the political Left, and gave the example of how the Catholic Church in Croatia was part of the campaign against the privatisation of water. He also reminded the audience that the struggle for the Commons is not just about protection of resources, but also their governance.
The afternoon’s panel, ‘Resistance and mobilisation against the neoliberal agenda’, was an opportunity for activists from the Balkans to discuss activism, strategies and the challenges they face in their respective cities and countries. Ovidiu Tichindeleanu talked about continuity and generalisation of the struggle against privatisation in Romania. Zdravko Saveski from Macedonia discussed activism and mobilisation against nationalism, militarism and the fight for social justice. Vuk Bačanović refered to the lack of class-consciousness and domination of national consciousness in Bosnia Herzegovina. Miloš Jadžić pointed to the weakness of the left in Serbia today despite the efforts of many groups to mobilise against privatisation and social injustice. Agon Hamza, on the other hand, referring to the international community’s ‘paradigm of stability’ in Kosovo, criticised it for enabling the ideological domination and exploitation of the local people. Suzana Kunac spoke about student resistance and occupation as acts of direct democracy. Milan Rakita wrapped up the discussion by identifying common grounds for joint regional organisation and activities.
In the first evening lecture, ‘Passion for Ignorance’, Renata Salecl asked why people are turning a blind eye towards economic inequality, ecological catastrophes and personal wellbeing. The lecture related this tendency to changes in the way people are brought up, how they become social beings and whether they internalise social prohibitions. Salecl argued that the malaise of civilizations and the malaise of individuals always influence each other.
In his keynote lecture Michael Hardt asked the question, ‘What to do in a Crisis?’ He reflected on the cycle of protests during the last year, in particular how they transformed a number of paradigmatic subjectivities that characterize contemporary life for many people. The condition of being in debt, under surveillance, the subject of a media society and being represented by an electoral system corrupted by finance, the media and fear, have at times been inverted by the rootedness and communality of the encampments. It is the kind of social bonding seen in Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street that can offer a counterpoint to the subjectivities imposed on us. The larger question is how to go from such local experiences to that of society in general.
The fifth day opened with a panel 'Deindustrialisation and Workers’ Resistance', that focused on different labour struggles in the Balkans. This session was an invaluable opportunity for panelists and audience members to share experiences, both positive and negative, from different sectors and between places- this is precisely the kind of experience that the Balkan Forum aims to encourage. In her opening remarks, Jovica Lončar, the chair of the panel, argued that there is a need to address common prejudices and misconceptions about workers’ movements in the region. In contrast to the prevailing belief that the workers are passive and politically poorly educated, there are plenty of positive examples from the last decade. Siniša Miličić provided an inspiring account of self-organisation of workers in Croatia who acquired control of their factories. However, as other panelists commented, this isn’t something that may be appropriate to all kinds of industry- the key aspect is that the workers have a meaningful level of influence. Milenko Srećković concluded the session by speaking of the need for solidarity within the region. When he said, ‘We speak the same language,’ he seemed to be talking in more than just linguistic terms.
The next panel, 'Direct Democracy: Theory, Experience and Perspectives' presented examples of how dd has worked, and not worked, in different situations. Josip Jagić spoke of the use of dd following the occupation of the General Assembly of the faculty of human sciences in Zagreb. He identified 2 major issues that had proved problematic, firstly, the rotation of functions that often occurs in dd so as to promote a policy of depersonalization. In his experience, this hadn’t prevented the emergence of ‘leaders’, as some are more dominant than others in discussion. The other problem was that of continuity. There was a loss of interest after the initial occupation, perhaps because what makes a micro-society possible initially can’t be sustained due to the need to sustain daily life. The panel led to a very good discussion in which the pragmatics of implementing dd were explored. One suggestion was to accept that people have different experiences, which lead to different capabilities, and that these people can then train others to fulfill the same role. It was also proposed that dd needs to be gradually introduced to different sectors of society in a context-dependent manner. Some argued that a level of professionalism and horizontal organization would help towards the sustainability of dd organizations.
In the next session Igor Štiks summarised the Balkan Forum by first reiterating that another Balkans is clearly possible, not only possible but necessary. He emphasised the main themes of the Forum: social justice, resistance to forces that undermine emancipation, the commons, labour struggles, and democracy. The last two decades have attacked what remained of the welfare state since the break up of Yugoslavia, and there is now an urgent need for an alliance of progressive forces, which face similar problems, though we must not marginalize the differences in our situations, or we will pay a price. He argued that we must tackle the way reactionary forces have used nationalism to mobilize their populations. Many of our struggles are dominated by single issues, and some cohesion will be necessary. He went on to say that we cannot win workers’ rights without redefining what social justice means. However, we should take encouragement from the grass roots struggles going on throughout the region. These movements must not forget human rights, or minority rights, or the struggle for gender equality. As for the Commons, they have become a rallying point. The struggle for the Commons is part of a process of promoting transparency, citizens’ participation, different relations between private and public, and a redefinition of what constitutes property.
With regard to labour struggles in the region, the story is one of the destruction of human skills and knowledge, the production of what Samir Amin calls ‘human waste’. More work will be needed to reunite these workers’ movements, so that national or ethnic consciousness can be challanged by class consciousness.
Igor concluded with the observation that whilst the five main themes of the Forum are by no means the only pressing issues, these are ones which seem to have specialized experts. Any strategy of transformation, whether in the Balkans, or globally, needs to find ways to unite expertise and knowledge.
Vinod Raina responded by asking the audience to not underestimate the baggage of 40 years of plundering socialist regimes. He argued for the need for progressive movements to distance themselves from the worst of the past but preserve the best elements (a point Tariq Ali also made during his lecture). Srećko Horvat emphasized Igor’s sentiment that the Forum was the start of a process, what he described as a ‘cognitive mapping’ of the Left. He said that this will enable the next Forum to engage more with strategies, and suggested that 2013’s Forum will have working groups for some of the issues.
In the first evening lecture ‘From communism of capital to capital of Communism’, Christian Marazzi talked about the emergence of communism of capital through the socialization of finance capitalism as a result of the historical crisis of capitalism. According to him, to combat the 'crisis of the crisis', particularly in Europe, we must recapture communism, its capital, its reality, transforming the crisis into the process of building common areas of life, the 'ethics of the common’.
In her key-note speech, ‘Future, pasts, languages, Balkans’, Gayatri Spivak spoke of the multiple challenges imposed by globalisation as the new stage of imperialism. According to her, the role of the state in a globalised era has been reduced to that of a manager of the market and capital and not as the embodiment of the ‘general will’ of the people. Thus, she called for rethinking of the nation as a site of capital management and drew attention to the challenge of changing the present structure of education and the need to train future generations about the use of education.
During the final session of the Forum Renata Salecl, Boris Buden and Dubravka Ugrešić, some of the most prominent Balkan and European intellectuals, writers and philosophers, discussed the role and the place of the Balkans in contemporary Europe. Among the questions they considered were such fundamental issues as what happens when one can observe ‘Balkanisation’ within the European Union while the ‘Europeanisation’ of the Balkans is in crisis? They critically examined the meaning of the word 'Balkans' in the media and in artistic, literary and academic spheres. The term generates both fascination and fear and its very borders are subject to constant re-imagination, both in the Western media as well as within this region. They agreed that socialist Yugoslavia was a place where similar processes to those we now witness in the European Union were taking place from the 1960s until the final disintegration. However, these lessons from the positive and negative sides of the Yugoslav experience have not been learned in Europe. Today new progressive and emancipatory movements capable of critically examining the socialist past, the nationalist destruction and also contemporary Balkan societies, and which are embedded and fully active within a wider European and global context, might become new agents of change.
From web magazine Citizenship in Southeast Europe
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