Leaving Tuzla #2

We have made our way south, through Orebić, a small Croatian village located on the coast of a peninsula jutting way out into the Adriatic, then down to a coastal B&B in Albania, across Albania into mountainous north central Greece, then onto Volos and the Ferry to the Island of Skiathos. All the time I am thinking about Tuzla, about leaving Tuzla, and about Berkeley.

But the preponderance of my thoughts boil down to this: the fate of birth and the injustice rolled up into that fate. If family lineage was placed so high on a pedestal throughout history, determining your career, your station in life, your marriage partner, your way of living and your way of dying, perhaps the reason for the high esteem granted to birth place and patrimony is tacit recognition of this injustice and therefore the fundamentally precarious position of birth. Should anyone question the rights following from birth, much else falls to pieces. By what right . . . ? Well, by no right at all; or that should be the answer.

By what right is it that the individuals born into the communities through which we passed in Albania were all, without exception, living on the edge? By what right? By what right is it that wealthy Europeans and Americans decant onto the beaches of the Adriatic every summer to enjoy what many who live there cannot? By what right? By what right do we have the luxury to spend the last two weeks of our year in Europe vacationing on an Island in the Adriatic? By no right at all. That is the answer.

But I am then struck by deviousness of proclaiming all human beings “children of God” and all equal heirs with the Son of God to the emancipation promised in God’s community. If this is true, then we must count all the principalities and powers who deprive any of these — even the least of these — their birthright enemies of God’s reign. The equal distribution of goods, rights, privileges and protections is both politically and economically incompetent and irresponsible. But justice does not aim to be more efficient, more profitable, more productive, or even more ethical. Justice aims to restore to those deprived of what is theirs the things stolen from them.

Nothing except chance explains the fate of those who have been deprived of these goods, any less than fate explains the luck of those who have been born into the right family, with the right last name. A roll of the dice.

Which is why, as I return to Berkeley, I am thinking about how we must reverse these fates, reign them in, disarm them, so that the wealth all of God’s children are heirs to is returned to them, now, without delay.

Leaving Tuzla #1

It was about a year ago that I began blogging about my family’s and my impending departure for Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the time I was trying to imagine what I would find and what I would think. And, quite deliberately and self-consciously, I openly suspected that I knew much more then than I would in a year when I returned.

That actually turns out to only be partly true. I know much more about Bosnia and Herzegovina and about the former Yugoslavia now than I did a year ago. Moreover, I still feel as I felt then that what the former Yugoslavia needs is more money, more independent education, and more security. As everyone who reads this blog knows, I did not make up that formula. Aristotle did, almost twenty-four hundred years ago. And I still believe that that is what BiH and the rest of us need.

The question is how to get there. And the problem with getting there as with getting any place politically is that it requires the consent and, in this case, the active participation of the governed. In fact, if we had the active participation of the governed, then we could also get the health, wealth, education, and welfare of the governed. Not the one without the other. And the problem, as I now see it, is that this active participation in self-government is not what former Yugoslavs do; this in spite of the fact that for thirty-eight years, from 1952 to 1990, this is precisely what Yugoslavia was famous for: samoupravni, or self-management. In practice, however, samoupravni actually entailed an often delicate balance between real managers and communist party representatives. So long as a self-managing enterprise performed well, party officials kept their thoughts to themselves. But when an enterprise performed less well, the party would step in, often replacing the managers. Workers voted. Workers participated on committees. They were free to disagree both with party officials and with managers. But the real management was actually performed . . . well, by real managers.

Self-management seems then at best to have been a proxy for social ownership, which was not an illusion, but a reality. But social ownership is not the same thing as self-governance.

In a multi-party state, institutional frameworks are established that permit and promote the articulation of divergent and different policy interests and outcomes. These institutional frameworks are specifically designed to winnow these divergent and different interests and outcomes until consensus is reached. In a one-party state such as the former Yugoslavia, this winnowing is supposed to happen within the party. It is as though the Republican and Democratic parties in the US formed two different caucuses under a broad umbrella committed to free market economic mechanisms, republican values, and democratic process. In the former Yugoslavia, all party members were to have been equally committed to a mix of socialized, planned and free market economic mechanisms, republican values, and democratic processes. And, yet, much as in the US, the vast majority of individuals in Yugoslavia were happy to let politicians govern the process while they enjoyed the fruits of their labour. And this was sufficient from about 1952 to 1980, when Maršal Tito passed away.

After 1980 as the economy grew steadily worse, citizens took to the streets. And, much as they might in the US, citizens in Yugoslavia demanded that someone take charge and solve the problem. But, what precisely was the problem? Different segments of Yugoslav society understood the problem differently. But, however they understood the problem, they agreed that up until 1978 they had enjoyed a steady stream of consumer goods, the promise of a home, a pension, a vacation home, sufficient food and health; whereas after 1978 these goods became increasingly uncertain.

Again, not unlike in the US, Yugoslavs were inclined to blame this downturn on their leaders. They demanded regime change. But, since the problem was global, regime change would not solve their problem. Indeed, for Bosnians and Herzegovinians regime change actually exacerbated their problem because when regime change did occur it was accompanied by a radical embrace of neoliberal economic policies. Public assets were placed on the auction block and political offices were packed with the lucky recipients of IMF and World Bank money who then used these resources to create private enterprises — their own — that benefited private individuals — themselves. This helps to explain why when Bosnians and Herzegovinians allow themselves to think a better future for themselves, it looks like the 1960s and 1970s. In other words, what they want is a leader, like Josip Broz Tito, who will impose smoupravni, self-management.

What they do not think when they allow themselves to think a better future for themselves are actual self-managing, self-governing enterprises engaged in governing society. They do not think these self-governing enterprises because in their minds self-government was not what distinguished Yugoslavia. It is not what comes to mind. What comes to mind is a leader who will impose self-government, not self-government itself.

Obviously this does not distinguish the US from Bosnia and Herzegovina. It does not distinguish Bosnia and Herzegovina from most places, where self-government is at best an illusion. So where might Bosnians and Herzegovinians acquire this absolutely essential capacity? In the US, I think of the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Viet Nam War movement. In the former Yugoslavia, I think of Maršal Tito’s Partisans. What distinguished these movements was their broad appeal and superior organizing capacity. And, yet, when I survey Bosnia and Herzegovina today, what I see is a nation whose citizens can clearly think the goals of organizing, but who are completely in the dark about organizing per se. Flash mobs suddenly appear and just as suddenly dissipate. “Interventions” proliferate, but because they intersect history and society at right angles they leave mere isolated pockets on a landscape already littered with craters. Tito’s capacity to reach across lines and help participants imagine a shared future together emerging out of their shared activity in the present; this capacity appears not only to be lacking, but actively, deliberately, self-consciously discouraged, perhaps because mass movements of any kind call up memories that are too horrible to face.

How to get from here to there. That is where I personally am even less certain today than I was a year ago. No one seems to have the energy, much less the imagination, for the kind of political work that is required. And so we seem to be drifting toward the edge of that very horror that everyone fears, another war.

Thoughts on the Unthinkable

I am hoping that I never fully process the horrors of Srebrenica-Potoćari, where for eight days in 1994, from June 11 to June 18, Serbian nationalist troops under the command of Ratko Mladić committed the unthinkable act of genocide, killing over unarmed defenseless men and boys between the ages of 12 and 77. Since the details are readily available, I want instead to relate my own thoughts on this unthinkable deed.

Our guide was a survivor who was twelve years old at the time of the genocide. He could easily have been separated with the men as was true for his cousins. His account was chilling.

I was of course struck by the graffiti on the walls of the barracks that housed the Dutch soldiers who were responsible for the safety of the Bosnians who had escaped to this United Nations “Safe Area.” Even though I had seen the graffiti several times before in museums and exhibits, walking through the rooms that housed the soldiers somehow made the graffiti more real.

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I remember a glossy magazine patterned after Home and Garden resting on a coffee table in a cozy B&B that Kirsten and I stayed at in rural South Carolina. Only the title of this magazine was Guns and Garden and in addition to the spreads on picture-book estates and sprawling country gardens, the magazine also featured buxom models in bikinis toting assault rifles. I also remember a bumper sticker I saw on a Prius before we left Berkeley: “I’ll keep my guns, freedom & money.” And I am struck that the strange mix of militarism, misogyny, and and violence that I am viewing in these barracks is probably not all that odd. And I am wondering whether any studies have been conducted about the graffiti in other barracks or dormitories that house soldiers.

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But I am also struck by the way that I and the others in our group sprint to personalized stories in the face of this horror. Many of these stories are entirely appropriate, such as the story related by a young Serbian man and his Serbian wife, now living in Boston, who were children when the genocide occurred. The Serbian man appears visibly shaken. He wants to apologize. He wants someone to apologize. He feels terrible. His wife’s family was “cleansed” from Croatia when Croatians decided that they were no longer Yugoslavian. She recalls the terror she felt when the police came for her father. When he was released two years later, he was malnourished and grossly under weight.

Yet, the recurring question, “how could anyone do this?” — a question for which, I believe, there are no satisfying answers — skirts the more pressing question: “How can communities of people do this? — a question for which we have very satisfying answers. I am reminded of the mantra I heard over and over and over again on the lips of ordinary people in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia, in public museums, from intellectuals . . . “the Turkish hoard.” How can individuals who have been raised repeating this mantra, whose public institutions repeat this mantra, whose public officials and teachers repeat this mantra; how can they not murder those whom they mistake for the Turkish hoard among them, those with Bosnian last names? If we believe, as many do believe, that ethics and morality and responsibility are completely isolated from the social, political, and economic worlds we come from — that we are born hard-wired “good” or “evil,” “Christian” or “Jew” or “Muslim,” that these are not choices, but states of being; or if we believe that our state of being, my state of being, enjoys a direct line to eternity; then how can I possibly tolerate those who are not hard-wired as I am?

And, yet, we regularly tolerate — no, we encourage and often even require — the repetition and reproduction of these hateful ways of thinking so as not to offend the beliefs of those among us who are committed to hatred. Or we completely ignore the close connection that has been found between peaceful co-existence and the absence of want, absence of fear, in contexts where diversity is cultivated.

So the question, collectively not individually, is why is what happened in Srebrenica not happening everywhere? Of course, we can point to Syria and to Palestine or Ukraine. We can point to Russian homophobia and to rampant Asian hostility to Africans. We can point to all of these troubles. And we should. At each of these places a Srebrenica is waiting to happen. Which is why Hannah Arendt was so troubled by how terribly normal she found the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Srebrenica was committed by people like me. That was Arendt’s conclusion. Indeed, when we ask what kinds of people commit such crimes or when we seek to identify the kinds of people who don’t — individually not collectively — we are in fact engaging in the same kind of thinking that led to the crimes in the first place.

We should instead be asking in what kinds of societies — collectively — are such crimes less likely: societies that welcome difference; societies where all are cared for; societies where all are safe, fed, housed, and loved. And, yet, even in such societies — even among the Dutch who were charged with protecting the Bosnians — there can be horrific breakdowns. (Anecdotally we heard that among those soldiers who failed to protect the Bosnians, 8 have committed suicide; itself a tragedy.)

Finally, I was struck by the women we met in Potočari who made lunch for us and who meet together for support. Kirsten felt that they were her age or even younger based on the ages of their children. Yet their faces looked worn, sad, haunted, as undoubtedly they are.

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Outside of the staff working at the memorial, we saw no Bosnian men in Srebrenica-Potočari. There are none.

The Yugoslav Economy 101

This past week we had the pleasure of sharing dinner with Professor Kadrija Hodzic and his wife Alinka. Kadrija is the Editor of Tranzicija, an economic journal that explores issues surrounding economies undergoing transition. Tranzicija was founded in 1999 as a platform for economists who were eager to critically assess the transition from self-managing socialism to free market capitalism since the death of Josep Broz Tito. Among its first editors was Branko Horvat, the Jewish-Croatian economist who had a larger hand in explaining and shaping the Yugoslav economy than any other economist. But it has enjoyed a team of editors since 1999 from Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania who are among the most distinguished economists in the former Yugoslavia.

It has been a genuine pleasure to get to know Kadrija and Alinka, and not only because of our shared profession. They are the only Bosnians outside of clergy who share a genuine interest in sympathetically discussing religion and spirituality. They are both poets. And they both share our enjoyment of good food, music, and nature.

But Tuesday was a special treat because we brought Kadrija our white board and he promptly laid out in broad strokes the prototypical self-governing enterprise in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Here’s how it worked. Any final product is made up of several factors of production. In the example Kadrija used, these factors were cultivating, milling, baking, and selling bread. Each of these factors is a self-governing enterprise. All of the enterprises together establish the value they contribute to and derive from selling the final product. But Tito was a communist. And just how was this system communist?

Well, to begin with the workers own their enterprise. That is to say, when their product (bread, for example) goes to market, they share the proceeds with the state. The workers also own the physical enterprise socially: the farm, the mill, the bakery, and the shop. Beyond this, however, the communist party is also represented on “the shop floor,” so to speak, of each enterprise. The communist party representative is responsible for reporting back to the party about how the enterprise is operating. But the representative does not manage the enterprise. I am not sure how management was initially chosen, but Kadrija was clear about what happens when a management team is not performing well. In that case, the communist party steps in and another team is selected. This means that so long as an enterprise is doing well and prospering, the party is happy to assume a posture of non-interference. But if things go badly, then the party interferes usually by appointing someone to take over the enterprise.

This was not always how things worked. In the immediate aftermath of World War II and the defeat of the German occupiers by Maršal Tito’s anti-fascist Partisans, Yugoslavia adopted the same “soviet” system along with all of the other soviet socialist republics. But, then, in 1952, Tito told the ComIntern that it was going to chart a different course. Of course, this entailed purging those voices from the Yugoslav Communist Party who were more sympathetic with Stalin and then with Khrushchev than they were with Tito. But it also meant that Yugoslavia was poised from 1952 to 1965 to ride a wave of economic growth unparalleled elsewhere in the communist world.

As Patrick Patterson shows (Bought and sold : living and losing the good life in socialist Yugoslavia 2011), this growth created something else unprecedented in the communist world: a genuine consumer society whose members were free to travel anywhere they liked, buy anything they liked, produce anything they liked, and consume anything they liked. And, yet, because they owned their enterprises and returns from sales collectively, they were not only socialist, but genuinely communist. So what went wrong?

Here stories diverge. According to Professor Hodzic, the real problem lay in the fact that workers owned property socially. For, how can “ownership,” which is by its nature private, be simultaneously “public.” We can think of this problem as follows. If we look at the illustration Professor Hodzic drew out on our white board, you can appreciate that each collectively owned and operated enterprise will want to place the highest possible value on its produce and its assets. Its social “property” then bears a high value. So, for example, the farm sells its produce to the mill at the highest price possible; the mill then sells its milled grain to the bakery at the highest price possible; and so on. At each stage in production, then, the value of the collective social property increases exponentially. And, yet, at the end of the day, someone — in fact the workers — will buy a loaf of bread able to bear the cost of all of these stages of production extending all the way back to the farm. In order for workers to bear the relatively high cost for commodities, they must be sufficiently compensated. And this means that economic growth must increase at a rate not greater than wage and price expansion.

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This, in fact, is precisely what happened between 1952 and 1972. In other words, the implicit inflation was concealed behind unprecedented economic growth. According to Professor Hodzic, however, this was a ticking time bomb. Only if workers had been subject to the constraints imposed by real property ownership, where the value of assets cannot be underwritten by national economic growth and inflation, would they have had an incentive to hold prices in check. Instead, Yugoslavians had to bear some of the highest prices anywhere in Europe.

Unfortunately, this story largely ignores the real growth and real efficiencies producing that growth, focusing instead on the property and price mechanism. So, another way to inflect the period 1952 through 1972 is through the metric of time. Yugoslav workers were becoming incredibly efficient. But just as elsewhere in non-socialist and non-communist societies, Yugoslavs elected to spend their efficiency not by seizing time back from working time, transferring the difference to leisure time, but by plowing these efficiencies back into production and consumption. Short of the margin — i.e., short of market saturation — this means that prices and wages are safe so long as rates of growth continue unabated. Yet, once the margin is reached, continued growth can only lead to a decline in overall rates of profit, prices, wages, and so on.

This story differs from the story Professor Hodzic related because, where his story focused on property ownership, a focus that presumably would hold true only for economies with socialized property ownership, this story focuses on time-labour-value relations, relations that would hold good in the rest of the world as well. And, as a matter of fact, when the Yugoslav economy began to sour in the late 1960s, so too did the economies of Europe, North America, and Asia. And this would strongly suggest that the cause for these problems did not lie in property relations per se, but rather in value relations.

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What could policy makers have done in the late 1960s as rates of profit began to decline? They could have “cashed in” on the tremendous efficiencies produced by labour in the 1950s and 1960s, pulling labour from the labour market, but maintaining sufficient production of wealth to satisfy the needs and wants of the consuming public. But this would have required the de-coupling of private ownership from value. Note that asset values everywhere began to plummet in the late 1960s and early 70s. And this shows that even where property was “socially” owned, it was nevertheless pegged to labour-time-expended. This meant that as full production (and in fact overproduction) was reached, this by necessity meant a decline not only in labour value, but also in property value.

If, by contrast, property were completely removed from the equation — if it reverted to material wealth — we could safely withdraw labour from the market while retaining wealth.

This is not what happened. What happened instead was that throughout the 1960s western investors continued to believe in the Yugoslav miracle, plowing millions of dollars into the Yugoslav economy. With the slowdown in the world economy, this miracle began to evaporate. But then in 1972, Nixon pulled the Dollar from the Gold Standard, releasing another flood of cheap US dollars. Tito snapped up this “free” money. And so, the Yugoslav economy gained a second life.

Did anyone during this period ask what would happen, as was almost certain, when the US reigned in its dollar supply? Did anyone wonder what would happen to the Yugoslav debt? I don’t know. I am eager to find out.

What is certain is that all of the efficiencies of the 1950s and 1960s were completely lost, sold as near worthless assets and junk bonds during the 1980s and 1990s. Would private ownership have prevented this mass privatization of public assets? By definition, it seems unlikely.

In any event, I will have the pleasure of continuing to explore these issues as the most recent addition to the editorial board of Tranzicija.

A Very Old Mosque

One headline in Saturday’s New York Times reads “Power Struggles in the Middle East Exploit Islam’s Ancient Sectarian Rift.” As I am led through a mosque by its young imam sporting modern western clothes and smart designer spectacles, for the moment I completely forget this ancient sectarian rift. Instead I marvel at the careful detail displayed on the walls of this ancient mosque, erected in 1580, one of the oldest continuously operating mosques in the former Yugoslavia, one of whose original features is the signature three-bay balcony, usually located on the outside of the mosque, set apart for women to pray. In this mosque the balcony is located inside the mosque itself. However, it is minutes before the imam will sing the call to prayer and while a long line of men stream into the sanctuary, I see no women. Is it only because it is Ramadan, I wonder?

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Questions such as these are becoming more persistent, more urgent, the nearer our approaching departure from this region. Why, we wonder, do citizens in Tuzla and elsewhere so assiduously avoid discussions about religion?

On Thursday, another economist at the University of Tuzla and his wife treated us to Iftar, the traditional meal following sunset when observant Muslims break their fast. It was extraordinary and not only on account of the food. It was the first time in over ten months that any non-clergy in Tuzla has talked with us personally about their religion. Why? Kadrija Hodzić’s theory, which seems to ring true to my experience, is that individuals in the former Yugoslavia identify religion with ethnicity and ethnicity and they identify ethnicity with genocide. When former Yugoslavians conceal or privatize their religion, they are in effect inviting a dialogue with one another that they might not be able to have were they to wear their religion “on their sleeve” so to speak. There is some of this in the United States as well, as, for example, in the decision by local congregations whether or not to display the American flag in their sanctuaries. Ultimately, the decision appears to come down to a question of non-offense. If the majority of parishioners would be offended by displaying the American flag, then it is not displayed. If the majority would be offended by its absence, then it appears. And, yet, there is a broad consensus among the liberal religious — Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindu — that standing shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-in-arm, in prayer and song against injustice, oppression, and violence is an indispensable witness.

When Occupy briefly overran US cities, liberal clergy showed up in droves, praying and singing together in a shared witness to the universal divine preference for the poor. This preference is ironically signaled in the common bumper-sticker: “Who would Jesus bomb?” The answer, of course, is no one. And presumably the same bumper sticker would hold for Krishna, Buddha, Moses, and Mohammed.

Yet, what if you live in a region where bombs have been aimed at others because of their ethnicity and their religion? I was astonished when, in public museums in Croatia and Slovenia, the phrase “Turkish hoard” was indiscriminately plastered upon displays recounting when the “Turkish hoard” appeared and when it was driven out. “Turkish hoard,” really? Even more astonishingly, the curators apparently saw no inconsistency between this designation of Ottoman Muslims while simultaneously recounting the tremendous rise in literacy, land rights, diversity, openness, and trade during the period when Croatia and Slovenia were “occupied.” Bombing the religious and ethnic other in the name of one’s favorite deity has a long history in our region. Shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-in-arm? Not in your life.

The Reverend Kirsten Snow Spalding, my wife, was not wearing her collar yesterday when we toured the mosque. But often she is, almost universally without comment from our hosts. What do people think when they see her at demonstrations and rallies in support of students, workers, flood victims, victims of genocide, and war? In the United States it is a no brainer: God supports students, workers, victims of natural and unnatural disasters. Here it is different. As one sympathetic local Orthodox member of the clergy explained: my presence would be universally “misunderstood.” Misunderstood by his parishioners, who would see him as siding with their enemies; misunderstood by non-Orthodox as a cynical political act designed to undermine the movement’s legitimacy.

And so the divine is compelled to vacate the streets, retreat inward and become a mere private household deity.

But what is clear is that the closeting of the divine is not promoting an end to ethnic hatred or religiously-inspired violence. To the contrary, twenty years later religion and ethnicity continue to top the list for the cause for divisions in former Yugoslav society. And I suspect that these divisions will only get worse. Two things will need to happen in order to ameliorate the situation. The first thing that will need to happen is that non-believers will have to come to terms with the fact that they live in a region where many people are religious. We have to stop ignoring religion or blaming religion for violence. Naming violence does not entail naming religion. It was not Orthodox who killed Muslims. It was not Serbs who killed Bosnians. It was criminals who killed criminals. If they also happened to claim to be Orthodox, then clearly this is a fundamental misreading of their faith and the sooner that Orthodox religious leaders stand up and confess openly that genocide is anathema to Orthodox faith the sooner we can move on. But a large part of moving on will be non-religious resisting the temptation to ontologize violence as “Serbian” or “Orthodox” or “Muslim” or “Croat.” The second thing that will need to happen is that religious leaders will have to step out together to renounce genocidal violence together. Yes, there is a risk here that members of our own communities will misunderstand our standing together with “perpetrators.” But in order to dispel this misunderstanding we need to clearly dissociate the category “perpetrator” from the ontologized religious or ethnic categories to which it has wrongly become associated. There is nothing in the category “Orthodox” or “Muslim” or “Catholic” that makes it synonymous with “perpetrator.” And the sooner religious leaders clearly and unequivocally articulate this fact in action, visibly, the sooner parishioners will also be forced to identify themselves either as opponents of official Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim teaching or as its defenders.

Because when it comes to genocide, indifference is not an option.

Happily the former Yugoslavia has not yet descended back into the kinds of sectarian violence of which we know it is capable. And, yet, clearly, through their self-imposed silence and indifference, both the religious and non-religious alike are preparing the ground for another round of killing. Only open conversation, discussion, and visible displays of solidarity will disperse the building storm clouds.