Vukovar

On Saturday, we borrowed Nakiča’s old Renault and travelled with a contingent of peace activists to Vukovar for the “Bridges to Europe” colloquium, where our host Damir was one of the panelists. Vukovar is in Croatia, nearly three hours due north from Tuzla. It is only a few kilometers from the border with Serbia. Back in 1991 when Croatia declared its independence, Vukovar was the site of some of the worst atrocities. Whole Croat families were rounded up from their homes based solely on their last names. The women were raped. The men were temporarily put in concentration camps before they were lined up, shot, and buried in mass graves, 3800 in all. The colloquium was sponsored by the EU, Austria, and Turkey. Among the other panelists, besides Damir, were the Austrian former Vice Chancellor and the Turkish Ambassador. There was also a marvelous Serbian journalist who criticized the cult of respecting one another’s differences; we are not different. We are the same. It was respecting differences that got us into this mess.

Although I had pleasant conversations with the Turkish Ambassador (“Your Excellency” is how Ambassadors are addressed) and the former Vice Chancellor (simply “Vice Chancellor,” leave off the “former”), they were rather weak panelists; all about economic cooperation, dropping barriers, liberalizing trade, etc. Very little about the mass graves and violence for which neoliberal economic policies bear no small part of the responsibility. There was also a writer who spoke, in Croatian, so we could not understand her.

The colloquium took place in an old castle, restored since the war, which had apparently been completely bombed out.IMG_1117

The tower had been repainted, but still bore the scars of war, perhaps as a reminder.IMG_1120

The post colloquium reception was pleasant, although I had one awkward conversation with the author of the definitive “History of Philosophy,” unfortunately written in a language that no one reads, Croatian. He had served as a translator for the Ambassador and former Vice Chancellor during the Croatian panelist’s presentation. I am guessing that he weighed between 350 and 400 pounds. The gist of his definitive history was that all empires, imperialism, and globalization are all good. Hmmm. OK. Kirsten had a more productive conversation with one of the colloquia’s organizers, a journalist from Austria whose family had fled Croatia in 1991. So she was completely Austrian now with no ambitions of returning.

IMG_1127Following the reception we wandered to the town square, where the main event was to take place. For the first time since 1991, a Serbian band (a reggae band it so happens) was to perform. After the Serbian band a Croatian band was to perform. Police were everywhere. There had been warnings of possible violence. Happily, none took place. Instead, beer flowed. Everyone danced. There was an overall festive atmosphere.

At about 11:30 we decided to make the trek back to Tuzla, three hours away.

Vukovar left me feeling very anxious, sad, and spooked. There were building projects everywhere: banks, shopping malls, streets, sidewalks. But the city was largely vacant. A recently constructed skateboard park teaming with street artists, skateboarders and bicycle artists, testified to the presence of teenagers (and thus families), but apart from the square and the bands and the dancing, the city seemed devoid of any real center; which had in fact been completely razed during the war along with most of the homes. Vukovar has become a symbol, but of what? Europe has showered gifts and building projects upon her, but seemingly to no avail.IMG_1132

Important footnote: 3800 civilian fatalities in a town less than ten times that size, and yet the local hospital cannot afford even one full-time psychologist. Rape and genocide of monstrous proportions, and yet no psychologist to deal with the trauma?

Of course, unbelievably, there is much worse. We will visit Mostar and Banja Luka. But I am happy to be back in Tuzla preparing for tomorrow’s lecture.

War and Unbelief

Joseph W.H. Lough

It is common for us to assume that, among more thoughtful survivors, religious wars reinforce unbelief. And for the most part I think this is correct. When combatants credit their Gods for the violence they are inflicting on one another, it makes sense for survivors to challenge the validity not only of the Gods who have inspired such mortality on such a grand scale, but also, more generally, to challenge the validity of any inspiration no matter what its source that might inflict such terrible wounds upon a society. And so it is throughout Bosnia that the outward signs of religious devotion – minarets spread across the horizon, women in burkas (not full, but partial), and an abundance of grave yards and memorials everywhere one looks – are accompanied by an overall distrust and even hostility to all things religious.

And, yet, I am reminded in this regard of Max Weber’s 1915 essay awkwardly titled in English “Religious Rejections of the World and their Directions.” I am reminded of this essay because Weber, who was no slouch when it came to social theory, is credited with having shown why modern social actors may be increasingly inclined to shed traditional religious beliefs and spiritual practices. They do so, according to Weber, not only because scientific, rational explanations convince them that the world is not really governed by magic; not only because scientific explanations enjoy greater rational coherence and logical soundness. They also do so, according to Weber, because the technological, industrial world, along with its legal, administrative, and institutional forms, fits together into a rational, coherent, practical whole whose individual parts would scarcely work together with one another were the world governed by magic instead of law.

Max Weber 1917 at the Lauensteiner Tagung. In ...
Max Weber 1917 at the Lauensteiner Tagung. In background: Ernst Toller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And, yet, Weber was neither naive nor blind. Which is where Weber’s awkwardly titled essay comes into play. For it was in this essay, penned in the midst of one of the most horrific wars ever fought, World War I, that Weber began to flesh out what could be called an alternative understanding of contemporary religion – not a religion grounded in magic, but a religion grounded in family and community relationships, allegiance to political and national organizations, and most productively and ominously, a devotion to the war dead and to their surviving families. None of which invites me to believe in magic or tradition or even a dogmatic set of beliefs.

Weber put it this way:

The mutual strangeness of religion and politics, when they are both completely rationalized, is all the more the case because, in contrast to economics, politics may come into direct competition with religious ethics at decisive points. As the consummated threat of violence among modern polities, war creates a pathos and a sentiment of community. War thereby makes for an unconditionally devoted and sacrificial community among the combatants and releases an active mass compassion and love for those who are in need. And, as a mass phenomenon, these feelings break down all the naturally given barriers of association. In general, religions can show comparable achievements only in heroic communities professing an ethic of brotherliness.

Moreover, war does something to the warrior which, in its concrete meaning, is unique: it makes him experience a consecrated meaning of death which is characteristic only of death in war. The community of the army standing in the field today feels itself – as in the times of the war lords ‘following’ – to be a community unto death, and the greatest of its kind. Death on the field of battle differs from death that is only man’s common lot. Since death is a fate that comes to everyone, nobody can ever say why it comes precisely to him and why it comes just when it does. As the values of culture increasingly unfold and are sublimated to immeasurable heights, such ordinary death marks an end where only a beginning seems to make sense. Death on the field of battle differs from this merely unavoidable dying in that in war, and in this massiveness only in war, the individual can believe that he knows he is dying ‘for’ something. The why and the wherefore of his facing death can, as a rule, be So indubitable to him that the problem of the ‘meaning’ of death does not even occur to him. At least there may be no presuppositions for the emergence of the problem in its universal significance, which is the form in which religions of salvation are impelled to be concerned with the meaning of death. Only those who perish ‘in their callings’ are in the same situation as the soldier who faces death on the battlefield.

This location of death within a series of meaningful and consecrated events ultimately lies at the base of all endeavors to support the autonomous dignity of the polity resting on force (From Max Weber Oxford 1958, 335).

This is a significant passage and it deserves serious reflection. It helps to explain, in part, why soldiers count combat to be among their most meaningful and formative experiences. It would therefore have been all the more interesting to read Weber’s interpretation of the post-war climate in Germany, where religious devotion of the sort that he describes here seemed everywhere to be in retreat, but where camaraderie among surviving soldiers and victims of war continued to draw individuals and families together in communities that defied the categories of traditional religion. Atheism was widespread. Even bourgeois Germans avoided all but the most significant religious holidays – and even then only as the expected cultural obligation. After all, what would they believe in? What could they believe in?

Memorial Outside our Building
Memorial Outside our Building

To say that Germans felt empty would not only be an understatement. It would also be mistaken. They did feel empty, but they also felt filled – bursting – with the memories of war. War dominated absolutely everything, so that even in their assiduous avoidance of all thoughts of war, Germans were aware that war colored quite simply everything.

Which is why, even eighteen years out, I find the pronounced “atheism” of the Bosnians I meet terribly disturbing. Not because I feel one way or the other about atheism in general, but because I am doubtful that the empty world of instrumental, means-ends rationality and technical, scientific rationality can supply the coping therapies that all genuinely social animals need and eventually find or create. Something extraordinarily powerful encompassed the lives of all Bosnians for three horrific years. And that this encounter should induce widespread disbelief in the traditional Gods is hardly surprising. Many in my parents’ generation have never forgiven the Gods for allowing the Holocaust.

Religious-map-of-Bosnia-Herzegovina
Religious-map-of-Bosnia-Herzegovina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For me, however, a haunting question remains. Why did Germans so lustily embrace a new wholly manufactured religion in 1932 if, in 1918, they were so thoroughly done with the Gods? Here is my suspicion. I think that traditional religion may provide us with precisely the tools we need to resist the new wholly manufactured religions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; not automatically and not without thoughtful appropriation. But I worry that such widespread trauma, subsequently glossed over by such widespread malaise and emptiness, may prevent us from appreciating how and why individuals and groups must and actually do put the pieces of their lives back together, just as Germans did in 1932, after more than a decade of neglecting that trauma.

No I am not suggesting that Bosnians must decide between Tito or God. Rather am I inviting a more thoughtful and perhaps more painful interrogation of the social, psychological, and cultural causes for atheism in Bosnia. Such an interrogation might not only help Bosnians to face more openly the very real trauma they have experienced, but also might help them to more carefully and thoughtfully discriminate between a wholesale rejection of the Gods, which can have no cause other than trauma, and a critical embrace of those features within our traditions that aim to heal and make whole.

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Memorials

Joseph W.H. Lough

One cannot walk more than a block in Tuzla without finding a memorial identifying soldiers who perished defending the city and region. That is because out of a population prior to the war of 130,000, some 1,200 were killed (JN Weiss). Which means that it is virtually impossible to walk through the city without being reminded every few steps what happened here. It is also impossible because that is what scholars study here; they study genocide and death and violence. And then there are the abandoned buildings, which, we are told, will probably continue to crumble and decay in lieu of their owners returning or being located or otherwise accounted for. And there are the exteriors of buildings that still bear the scars of war.

Memorial Outside our Building
Memorial Outside our Building

But then there are the walking memorials, the people themselves, many of whom endured the ten-month siege of Tuzla in 1993 and 1994, during which nearly 60 people died each day due to starvation and exposure. And, of course, there are those living today who lost children in the horrendous shelling of the town square, where Tuzla’s youth were celebrating the victory of their basketball team. There, on May 25, 1995, seventy-one celebrating young people lost their lives. And I can only think as I walk from my home to the University that I am passing the parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters of these young people.

Memorial outside BH, the local office of the postal and phone company
Memorial outside BH, the local office of the postal and phone company

It is not as though I want these survivors to again or continuously face what they have lost. Somehow they have gotten on with their lives. They go to the market place or to their jobs or to school. They go to the Pannonian Lakes. They sit in restaurants and bars. They have gotten on with their lives. But they are as much memorials to me as are the plaques that line the streets of Tuzla.

Memorials of what though? They are memorials I think of where I might be and of where I – where we – might be going. Which is why, unlike all of the other scholars I have met here, I am not studying the dead. Nor am I studying the living, the survivors. Rather am I studying the dying, those of us who do not yet comprehend that the dead in Tuzla and elsewhere in the Balkans did not die either because of who they were – Bosniaks, or Croats, or Serbs in a multi-ethnic society – or because of where they were – in the Balkans, but because of what the world around them was becoming, is still becoming.

For, it was not long ago that the world was becoming a place where difference enjoyed the safety and security of comprehensive integration into a universal system of law, regulation, culture and history. This comprehensive integration was premised first on British imperialism, which made British Sterling and British Law the universal global language, and second on the successor US empire, which finished what the British could not complete. Even those nations that challenged US hegemony knew and therefore aspired to the universal global integration that they could not themselves master.

But then in the late 1960s – a half century ago – rates of private profit began to suffer setbacks and the owners of capital began to challenge the authority of public institutions to enact and enforce universal global integration, since such integration required private capital to help defray the costs for its maintenance. Private capital not only claimed that it was better positioned and more competent to achieve comprehensive integration. It also challenged the validity of such integration, since this integration in their view detracted from the freedom that individuals should and could exercise on their own behalf. Disintegration of public institutions could go hand in hand with the successful and peaceful integration of private agencies of all kinds. Resources that formerly had been allotted for the maintenance and strengthening of public institutions would increasingly be reallocated to private agents, private enterprise.

It was this disintegration that was widely celebrated first in the 1980s in Great Britain and the US, and then in the 1990s in Eastern Europe and Asia. And so two centuries of global integration were, in the space of three decades, completely laid waste to.

And we are continuing on this destructive and self-destructive course. One commonly used definition of a tragedy holds that it is “as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances.” What was the flaw or moral weakness of the former Yugoslavians? What accounts for their inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances?

If in answer to these questions we reply that their weakness was to have believed in a universal law that was exposed when that law began to unravel – indeed when that universal law was deliberately and knowingly unravelled – then we can hardly fault former Yugoslavians from believing in this law. If on the other hand their weakness was to lustily embrace the spirit of disintegration trumpeted by (among others) the academic gurus at my alma mater, the University of Chicago, then, again, who can fault them? Were they in any way masters of the circumstances – the declining rates of profit – that required the atrophy and disabling of the once universal regulatory state? Does some hidden flaw account for their inability to cope with Great Britain’s and the United States’ assault upon the once universal state?

And so as I observe these living memorials in Tuzla, I am reminded that we are all tending toward the same kind of disintegration that precipitated their tragedy. For me they are memorials of where I am going unless we can identify some other grounds for integration other than global capital.

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Some Economic and Social Observations #1

One of the more interesting and disturbing features of the post-Fordist global economy brilliantly on display in the former Yugoslavia is the concentration of conspicuous wealth and consumption among social actors who, as far as we can tell, have no interest in creating an economy that might benefit other post-Yugoslavians. On the one hand, we observe a conspicuously dense and broad grouping of government bureaucrats, administrators, whose exceedingly modest incomes and pensions give rise to what there is of a middle class. On the other hand, we observe a considerable fleet of shiny, spanking new BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes occupied – we are told – by beneficiaries of international, official and unofficial, finance. And, yet, by conservative estimates, Tuzla shoulders an unemployment rate in excess of fifty percent; entirely believable when we consider the employment condition and purchasing power of the Bosnians we have met so far. And, there simply is no industry – no goods that Bosnians are producing that Croatians, Serbians, Montenegrins, much less other members of the EU are purchasing and consuming. And, yet, the balance of trade is not, for all of this, ballooning. To the contrary, it even enjoyed a slight improvement over the last quarter.
So, how might we account for this seeming inconsistency? One source in Tuzla suggests that the purchasing power of social actors connected to international finance (official and unofficial) account for the lion’s share of spending. Average un- and under-employed Tuzlans simply do not spend their modest earnings on anything beyond their daily bread. In effect, this means that Tuzlans who derive their income from international finance end up spending most of their earnings on consumer goods and services that come from elsewhere.
Of course, this is not entirely dissimilar from the way that neoliberal economic policy plays out elsewhere in the world and particularly in the US, where the income of the 1% has ballooned, while that of the 99% has shrunk.
In Tuzla, one conspicuous example of this trend is the monstrous Safet Bašić building project in the heart of downtown Tuzla. Safet Bašić is a Rusian-owned company. The wings of the high-rise will house offices and flats for the hyper-wealthy international class. The center building will house a resort spa and hotel for the same class, with restaurant, pool, etc. Tuzlans employed by the international giant will no doubt earn wages in line with local rates. They will neither live here nor vacation here. The costs of living, renting, or vacationing in the new building will be prohibitive except for the international class. Profits will also be carted out of the city and country.

SB Highrise in Tuzla
SB Highrise in Tuzla

So, why doesn’t Tuzla (or BiH) tax Safet Bašić at such a rate that might benefit local consumption and production? My source in Tuzla suggests that the local politicians have already been paid off; indeed, my source suggests that this payment constitutes on a vastly reduced scale their entrance into – or rather their aspiration to enter into – the international consumer class. In return Safet Bašić is relieved of its responsibility to support the local economy beyond the low wage ephemeral service jobs they may offer to a handful of Tuzlans.
But, lest it be suggested that there is anything criminal to such dealings, we must remember that this kind of public-private partnership in which private international capital feeds upon public goods illustrates precisely how the economy is supposed to work. For, we must remember that, by this theory, the very notion of a public good implies a public seizure of formerly private property. When therefore SB appropriates public land or public goods, or when political leaders benefit from such reappropriation, the argument could be made that they are merely restoring property formerly seized by the public to the private market place where it belongs. From there we can now allow the international marketplace to perform its magic; which in this instance in the near term means that average under- and unemployed Tuzlans will stand witness on their doorstep to an explosion in consumption in which they themselves can have no share.

Panonian Lakes

Joseph W.H. Lough

Yesterday our family visited one of the most unusual sites we have ever seen on our travels – Panonian Lakes (yes, on Wikipedia it is spelled “Pannonian”). What are Panonian Lakes? Well, millions of years ago the site currently occupied by Tuzla was a salt-water sea, the Pannonian Sea in fact. Over time, however, the water evaporated and the earth covered the original sea bed. But the salt remained. And since Roman times, peoples of the northern and eastern Mediterranean have mined the salt beds of Tuzla for salt. In fact, Tuzla means “city of salt.” And so long as Tuzla remained a small village – and so long as salt was mined sustainably – this was not a problem. But then as market capitalism came increasingly to dominate social life in the mid- to late-19th century, two things happened: Tuzla grew and so too did Europeans’ insatiable appetite for salt. The Austro-Hungarian owners of the salt mines found themselves digging for salt, literally undermining the foundations of the city.

Tuzla Panonian LakeThe practice was continued under the Communists up until the 1950s when it became clear that the practice was unsustainable. And so the mines were abandoned. But the city continued to sink into the former mines. Whole blocks disappeared. Old magnificent Austro-Hungarian buildings crumbled. Where once stood majestic buildings a noxious swamp land appeared.

Then about ten years ago, Tuzla’s mayor had an idea. The city would demolish the remaining crumbling buildings, excavate the rubble in the mines, and line the salt beds with polished stones. The beds thus restored could then be filled with fresh water and a filtration system could then be installed. The result is a three-lake sports and recreation park in the middle of the country . . . with clean, fresh salt water.

Tuzla Panonian Lake

Yesterday, we spent the day with our new friends Mak, Jasmina, and Amer swimming and sun bathing on the beaches of these inner city salt lakes, the Panonian Lakes of Tuzla while listening to rounds of calls to prayer ringing from a nearby minaret (not shown).

Tuzla Panonian LakeTuzla Panonian Lake

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Arriving in Bosnia

Joseph W.H. Lough

Among the essays you will find in Shatterzone of empires : coexistence and violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman borderlands, a collection of essays edited by Omer Bartov and Eric D. Weitz, is Larry Wolff’s essay, first in the volume, “The Traveler’s View of Central Europe: Gradual Transitions and Degrees of Difference in European Borderlands” ((2013-02-15). Shatterzone of Empires . Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition). As I reflect on my family’s less than gradual introduction to Bosnia, I am nevertheless reminded of how travelers since the fifteenth century have all noted the invisible boundary that differentiates, but also connects, eastern, central, and western Europe to one another, differentiating all three in turn from “the East,” from “Asia,” and what lies beyond.

We obviously did not travel by carriage as Johann Gottlieb Fichte did in 1791 (25), or as Count Louis-Philippe de Ségur did in 1789 (24). Nor did we travel by rail, as became increasingly common in the late 19th century, and is still not uncommon today. The transition from Frankfurt to Belgrade – from central to eastern or southeastern Europe – literally in cognito, above the clouds, concealed from the terrain below us, took a little over an hour. Once we appeared again through the thick cloud cover – and once the terrain below us came into focus – we could already identify the houses, fields, rivers, schools, stadia, and malls of Belgrade. And just like that, we were in eastern Europe, in the Balkans, in Serbia.

Two things stuck out. The first was the monochrome red terra cotta roofs spreading out in all directions as far as the eye could see, which at 10000 feet was very far. The second was the preponderance of swimming pools, public swimming pools, private swimming pools, swimming pools by my count in every sixth or seventh back yard. (Perhaps this helps to explain why the two Serbs I had as students at UC Berkeley were both on the water polo team.)

Passing through customs took so little time – perhaps a minute or two minutes maximum – that I felt there must be some additional step, some inspection that we must have overlooked, some doorway that we bypassed. Our driver, Nedim Avdic, was there waiting for us. We loaded our five 20×20 50 lb boxes into the van, along with our five pieces of luggage, and we were off; so that from touching down to our departure from Belgrade to Tuzla no more than thirty minutes could have passed.

Between Belgrade and Tuzla there are no four lane highways, only two lanes. And for most of our two and a half hour journey we travelled through country as flat and as packed with corn as any farmlands I have seen since moving to California from Wisconsin thirty years ago. And no matter the town we were passing through, small towns – villages really – we observed the same long houses with connected barns and sprawling, richly appointed vegetable gardens, situating in tidy rows stretching from the edge of the street to the edge of town, each house marking at its front porch the edge of Main Street and at its backyard boundary the outskirts of the village.

Serbia 2011
Serbia 2011 (Photo credit: zigurdszakis)

As we departed the Belgrade Airport, the signs of economic growth were everywhere – factories, delivery trucks, new automobiles. Gradually, however, these signs grew increasingly scarce, replaced by abandoned homes, half-built buildings, abandoned store fronts. In the place of factories and delivery vehicles we saw roadside vegetable stands or news stands. Still, I am finding it difficult to fit the experience of poverty in America with the experience of poverty and unemployment in Serbia, the Republic of Srbska, or the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina. People seem employed – building, selling, buying – but as one Bosnian confided, “we live as if by magic,” which she explained by describing the network of friends and relatives that sustain the more than fifty percent who are unemployed.

As we near Tuzla, the terrain becomes much more mountainous. As we descend into the river valley where Tuzla is situated, our driver points out where the Serbs set up the canons that shelled his city. And, then, after another hour of passing slower vehicles along Bosnia’s windy mountainous roads, we arrive in Tuzla, where we are greeted by Alma Tanovic and Jasmina Husanovic, colleagues at the University, who introduce us to our new apartment. And we arrive.

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Pre-Departure Reflections #3

In moments we will depart from Logan on the first leg of our journey to Tuzla. Over the past week my thoughts have been on what it means to be economically and politically isolated in a globalizing world. Tuzla and Bosnia are doing something that experts say should be impossible; they are surviving in the absence of integration into the global economy. The question is how. We have just received notice of our driver and his phone number who will be meeting us in Belgrade. Somehow Tuzla works. The question is how? My next post will likely be from Frankfurt. Let me know if there is something or someone we should visit during our layover.

The Strength of Strong States

By Joseph W.H. Lough

Francis Fukuyama has fallen upon bad times. Indeed, as a sign of these times, even Professor Fukuyama has been compelled to distance himself from his earlier, monumentally successful and influential End of History and the Last Man (1992). When he is taught – which is increasingly seldom – at the university where I teach (University of California, Berkeley), it is more often than not as a comic-tragic caricature, which is unfortunate not least because there are already too few ways to introduce undergraduate students to the rich, complex, and productive analytical universe bequeathed to us – but tragically unappreciated – by our nineteenth century predecessors. To be sure, because Fukuyama’s universe was shaped by Alan Bloom and Bloom’s conflict with Alexander Kojève, it offers only a narrow slice – and even then a highly selective slice – of what can be learned from the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, its disappearance from the canon signals a true loss.

Cover of "The End of History and the Last...
Cover of The End of History and the Last Man

As I prepare for my research in the Balkans, I was recently reminded of Fukuyama’s two chapters on the Weakness of Strong States, in which Professor Fukuyama documents the global decline beginning in the 1970s of those states that counted themselves as totalitarian or authoritarian. In later chapters, Fukuyama will show how the decomposition of these states was driven less by the declining rates of profit than by what he takes to be the “thymotic” drive to freedom that compels those living under bondage to rebel, even to the point of death, against their unfreedom. Those not compelled to rebel – whose love of mere biological life overrides their love of freedom – are what Fukuyama (following GWF Hegel) understands by “slavery.” Rebellion against authoritarian and totalitarian regimes is evidence for Fukuyama that our natural “thymotic” impulse is alive and well.

Portrait of G.W.F. Hegel.
Portrait of G.W.F. Hegel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, as mentioned, Professor Fukuyama interprets this drive through Alexander Kojève and, ultimately, through Kojève’s dispute with Leo Strauss over the role of Hegelian freedom in the formation of the modern state. In this dispute, Kojève was inclined to believe that freedom, which he reduced to democratic institutions and free markets, should and did in fact drive state-formation; while Strauss was inclined to believe that, in light of the perpetual adolescence of the majority, states needed to be carefully and wisely administered by quasi-Platonic philosopher kings.

As Robert Pippin has noted in his prohibitively dense Idealism as Modernism (1997), the debate between Kojève and Strauss, as well as its elaboration by Bloom and Fukuyama, focus all too narrowly and all too unhistorically, on categories restricted to either the private civil sphere or the state. This restriction prevents either Kojève or Strauss (or Bloom or Fukuyama for that matter) from adequately appreciating the rich and complex mediations upon which Hegel himself laid great emphasis. These mediations concerned the legal, cultural, social, political, and economic frameworks in which the civil sphere was nested and without which it was truly unimaginable.

As I prepare for my research in the Balkans, I am thinking about the weakening of these supra- and extra-civil mediations – legal, political, social, economic and cultural – which form the informal and formal regulatory web that makes civil life possible in the first place. And I am thinking about the weakness of the states – and particularly of Bosnia and Herzegovina – in the aftermath of the retreat and destruction of the mediations that once held these communities together. I am thinking of this weakness, in part, because of Professor Fukuyama’s one-sided reading of Hegel, which completely neglects Hegel’s extensive treatment of those public, non-civil, institutions that hold society together.

Advocates of a one-sided civil society – of states where social relations are mediated entirely by private markets – are inclined to completely overlook the vital roles that these more-than-private institutions play in bearing all of us along. But their central role does become clear eventually whenever societies are left – as Bosnia has been left – without the benefits of robust public legal, political, and economic regulatory frameworks within which alone civil society can thrive.

This was Hegel’s point. This is the strength of strong states. But this is not to discount Professor Fukuyama’s insight. Authoritarian or totalitarian states stifle true freedom. But Fukuyama failed to adequately differentiate these authoritarian and totalitarian formations from the absolutely essential public mediating formations that are more than private markets. And his failure along with the failure of others may have made it seem as though societies could thrive in the absence of these greater than private mechanisms. They cannot. What is more, communities in the Balkans have repeatedly illustrated what happens to societies that turn inwards and attempt to survive in the absence of these mediations. We have a word for this. It is “Balkanization.”

And it is well for us to remember this word as Serbia promotes the “independence” of Albanians living in eastern Montenegro or Serbs living in eastern Bosnia. The strength of strong – multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, diverse, liberal – political entities is that they create the very context within which civil life is even possible.

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Pre-Departure Reflections #2

There is something deeply unsettling about moving to another part of the world, even for a year. And this unsettling has brought me to reflect on refugees fleeing from conflicts taking place in their neighborhoods. We of course are not fleeing from a conflict.  And when we return we anticipate our lives, though changed, to fall back into place along roughly the same lines as when we left. Nevertheless, there is something deeply unsettling about moving to another part of the world, even for one year.

 

This dis-ease over leaving exposes the intricate interconnected networks of people and practices, habits and assumptions, out of which our lives are composed; certainties that most of the time hover in the background just out of sight, but providing the sure and durable material out of which those lives are composed. Moving away, even for a year, not only removes these certainties from our everyday experience; rather counter-intuitively, moving away foregrounds these certainties, lending them an explicit significance that normally they do not enjoy. But because they are in fact ghostly specters whose palpable presence no longer presses upon us, they haunt us rather by their absence than by their presence.

 

At the same time, these pockets of lost or missing experience do not remain empty. Rather like empty bottles thrust beneath the surface of a stream do our new experiences rush in to fill the void; which void mistakes these experiences for ones shaped liked the void they now fill without recognizing that obviously these new experiences must have emerged out of just as intricate and interconnected networks as the ones I left behind in Berkeley, but without the impress of my life upon them. And so I press them (as they press me) until over time we grow familiar.

 

Yet, at least initially, I cannot help but believe that these new experiences cannot occupy the voids left by my departure without significant discomfort and disease.

 

Read the translation on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...
Read the translation on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuzla (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An interval – long or short – sits uneasily between departure and arrival. So lengthy is that interval for the refugee that she never is permitted the luxury either of departing or of arriving, for she is undoubtedly always feeling the absence of the place she has left since she is also never permitted the luxury of ever arriving in a new place where new experiences can occupy the voids left by her departure.

 

Location is not incidental. Thought is always embedded. Disembodied thought – thought without location – may be what is meant by terror. And so I am brought to reflect on and hope for a home in Tuzla and a mercifully short interval between my departure and my arrival.

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Pre-Departure Reflections #1

Does Bosnia and Herzegovina offer us a particularly intense prefiguration of the consequences of privatization and deregulation on public institutions, or is it an anomaly reflecting no more than an example of what happens in what some have called the “Shatterzone,” the geo-political meeting place of four discrete former empires?

 

If the former, then we should anticipate finding in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) evidence of critical reflection and practice that could be usefully appropriated by other communities suffering from the consequences of neoliberal economic theory and policy; if the latter, then the kinds of critical reflection and practice displayed in Bosnia and Herzegovina may reflect no more – and may enjoy no broader application – than the immediate, local pathologies particular to this region.

 

A public fountain of Tuzla in summer 2007.
A public fountain of Tuzla in summer 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or perhaps our line of analysis must pursue a course somewhere between these two false alternatives. So, for example, neoliberal economists such as Robert Lucas readily acknowledge the universalizing tendencies immanent to free market capitalist development. In the face of these universalizing tendencies, particular, local, socially and historically specific institutions can prove problematic insofar as they introduce distortions and mount resistance to these universalizing institutional, legal, social and cultural forces. At the same time, privatization and deregulation may also promote precisely those local, particularizing tendencies that opportunistically resist the the countervailing universalizing tendencies that are also immanent to capitalism. And this, in turn, could mean that the twin goals of legality and open markets stand in an uneasy tension to one another, legality reflecting the universalizing tendency immanent to capital and open markets reflecting the particularizing, fragmenting tendency immanent to capitalism.

 

From this vantage point, it might then be possible to critically decipher the complex ways that private capital has helped to compose the very particularity that its universalizing tendencies are eager to overcome; pointing perhaps to a post- or supra-capitalist resolution to the tensions displayed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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