Intermediate Meditations


Soviet expansion, change of Central-eastern Eu...
Soviet expansion, change of Central-eastern European borders and creation of the Eastern bloc after World War II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shortly following the outbreak of World War I, Max Weber began to write down and publish what he called his Zwischen Betrachtung. The title, with its obvious invocation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s untimely meditations – Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen ­– may for Weber also have signalled his intention to proceed without fully working out his meditations. In a similar vein, I am giving myself permission to reflect and write without fully working out my meditations.

At the same time, I am aware – as Weber too must have been aware – that there is no such thing as unmediated experience or unshaped reflection. And, since I am eager for followers of my web log to grasp what I am writing, I am aware that I will have to be as explicit as I can about the mediations – that is to say the structured dispositions – that are shaping these reflections.

Like all places shaped by human action, Bosnia too is not a natural place. It is an unnatural place, as are the places by which Bosnia is surrounded, as is the place from which I am writing. Bosnia, happily, has been spared much of the nationalist fatalism by which so many in the Balkans (and not only in the Balkans) have been seized. Tuzla, where we will be stationed, elected a non-nationalist slate during the last electoral cycle.

In her Human Condition, Hannah Arendt writes of the assymetric contrast between natality and fatality, the first speaking of birth, the second of death. Nationalists frequently invoke the former – the place of one’s birth – when in fact they mean the latter. For, while it is true that birth is a necessarily limiting passage, giving place and time to a soul, it is, unlike death, also full of potential; and to tie birth, bind, limit, or constrain it to that place and time – to prohibit birth from occupying other places and times as well – is necessarily to subject birth to its opposite, to fatality; whereas the aim of life itself is to subject death to logic of birth, to the logic of natality and so to possibility.

When the Dayton Accords separated the peoples of the former Yugoslavia according to their birth, they therefore in fact imposed a further death sentence upon those whom they separated out. Our host, whose father was Serbian and whose mother is Bosnian, is proof of this sentence since separating him out would necessarily kill him. The nationalists will of course demand that he choose or that he die, further evidence that the logic behind the Accords was death and not life.

But the distinctions drawn by Professor Arendt are almost too broad to be useful. They invite us to take in all of humanity in one single gaze, whereas we well know that life is lived out in particular places and times, not all at once.

As we enter Tuzla therefore I will be interested in cultivating an awareness of the historical and social specificities that gave rise to and still give form to this place, this time, and these people. How was this place and how have these people been transformed over time?

My theory is that in the 1970s all of us – east and west, Serb, American, Croat, Bosnian – lived during the final days of what Antonio Gramsci has called “Fordism,” a system of social, cultural, legal, political, and intellectual regulation that aimed at suppressing or pressing local, regional, individual particularity into the service of demand-side, large-scale production. This regulatory regime was favored from the 1920s forward by social agents interested in capital accumulation because it was better able to take advantage of the unprecedented increase in productivity and industrial expansion generated by British Imperialism, US internal, continental, and regional colonization, and the tremendous boost in productivity and wealth generated by World War I. Exchanging higher wages, stable jobs, life-long benefits, and consumption for the monotony of the assembly line; or exchanging civil rights and liberties for the peace and security of the regulatory state seemed a small price to pay for the massive increases in productivity and consumption enjoyed first by Americans, then by Germans and Americans, then by Soviets, and finally by all merely compliant social actors in the aftermath of World War II.

Consistent, however, with Aristotle’s political theory, whereby increasing leisure, wealth, and education generate political awareness and action, the very success of Fordism generated a critical backlash throughout the developed world, both in central and eastern Europe, in western Europe, and in North America. And while it was possible for this backlash to give rise to a more democratic and more sustainable future, it was also possible that social actors interested in capital accumulation might view this backlash as a cultural and social opportunity to maximize returns on their investment. This was because the 1960s and early 1970s were not only a time – east and west – for social and political protest, but were also a time of decreasing rates of profit-taking by investors.

Economically, investors were eager to shed the Fordist social programs that justified the monotony of mass production and the limitations on personal freedoms and liberties. Culturally, investors were anxious about the rise of a generation of wealthy, leisured, and educated young people who were growing increasingly politically active – again, both east and west.

Post-Fordism emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a regulatory alternative to Fordism, a more flexible, stream-lined means than Fordism for producing cultural and political compliance and economic profits. Culturally and socially, post-Fordism aimed to bring social and economic actors to embrace a regime of dramatically reduced wages, benefits, and job security in exchange for the cultural value of greater “freedom” or “opportunity.” Economically, post-Fordism would replace the Keynesian Welfare State Regime with a post-Fordist quasi-militarist, privatized, security-state regime. This made sense because, with declining rates of profit, investors had to construct a regulatory regime that funneled resources from working individuals and families through the state apparatus to private capital investors and profit-takers. This massive shift in the regulatory apparatus made sense economically because the state could now deploy its resources more efficiently extracting wealth from working individuals and families than regulating private corporations, which, happily, had in any case always occpied the leading positions in the state apparatus.

Culturally, this massive shift in the regulatory apparatus entailed the provocation and expansion of a cultural war that could shift public attention away from wealth, leisure, education, and consumption as civil rights toward wealth and consumption alone. This, in turn, entailed shedding those functions of the state formerly deployed for creating greater leisure and providing more comprehensive education and health for working individuals and families, and diverting social wealth to the production of private wealth and the exploitation of resource and wealth streams around the globe.

Tragically, this is precisely where the former Yugoslavia comes into play. For whereas the US could more or less elegantly extract itself from Fordism and shift its resources to post-Fordist regulation, those nations, regions, and cities that fell under the Soviet sphere of political influence and economy did not enjoy this luxury. In the Soviet transition from Fordism to post-Fordism – a transition that roughly paralleled that of the US and UK – there was no shift at all. Rather was there an abrupt and harsh generation of a vacuum.

According to the standard narrative, this vacuum was filled in Yugoslavia (and then the former Yugoslavia) by the various nationalisms that had been suppressed by Soviet domination. But this is not entirely accurate. Concurrent with the rise of nationalisms was the invasion of neoliberal economic and political theory, a truncated, dehistoricized and undertheorized celebration of post-Fordism. According to neoliberal theory, partial, local, individual, personal identities are good and are to be cultivated. They constitute our liberty, our freedom.

They also completely disempower social actors who, once deconstructed by neoliberalism, find themselves at the complete mercy of trans-national, global, private economic actors who, far from embracing the virtues of the small, local, and individual, have instead used the decimation of the public sphere as a launch pad to advance their own completely privatized global vision.

What the former Yugoslavia most needs is large sums of public capital targeted at public institutions for public ends. What neoliberalism promises is the very opposite. It promises private wealth, private institutions, private growth at the expense of the public.

Post-Fordism is a global movement of capital accumulation, a regime of social, cultural, and economic regulation and integration that promotes the isolation and abandonment of the individual and particular as a means to promote private capital accumulation.

My theory is that this global transformation that took root in the late 1960s and from there spread throughout the 1970s and 1980s, is the key to understanding the specific history of Yugoslavia and the former Yugoslavia. My theory is that the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia is not a different fragmentation than that which has taken place all across the US, the UK, and is now spreading outward from Greece, Italy, Spain, and Ireland.

Interestingly, as it did prior to and during World War I, when Max Weber composed his famous meditations, Yugoslavia today is showing us our future, the future of neoliberalism, the future of post-Fordism. We might all be interested in knowing and learning whether and how Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia’s most progressive face, will create a sustainable future out of the wreckage created by neoliberalism.

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