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.