Two years ago, my family spent several days and weekends “occupying” the spaces privatized and “secured” under the new post-Fordist regime of accumulation and regulation. Those were exhilarating days not least because the usual crowd of lefties, students, and professors were joined by Teamsters, doctors, teachers, retirees, priests, rabbis, and pastors, believers and unbelievers — the 99% — who, for a brief moment, recognized that they were living and working in a world created by and for the 1% who owned the media, who had bought the politicians, and who were now making a killing off the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression. But then the tear gas, pepper spray, and billy clubs came out; the crowds dispersed, the middle class went home, and the police made easy work of the students, lefties, and street people who remained. That was that.
I now live in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, epicenter of the “Bosnian Spring”; in quotes because protests have occurred throughout the former Yugoslavia and in all of the entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina, including Republika Srpska. And, just in case you have not yet read (with all of the cut-backs in real, live reporters, the Western “for profit” press can be terribly slow), Tuzla is also the center of a new process of self-government, the Plenum (you will need to Google Translate the text), that is superseding the oligarchic-plutocratic model established by the EU, World Bank, and US following the Dayton Agreement. US and EU observers may mistake Plenum for Occupy, and they do share certain surface similarities. Like Occupy, for example, Plenum engages in “direct democracy.” Everyone’s voice can be heard. And, just as in Occupy, no one is “in charge.” Plenum, like Occupy, actually votes; and their vote holds.
Yet, there are several elements where Plenum differs from Occupy. Most notably — and this is really, really important — Plenum has been recognized by the “duly established” authorities, by the elected City government. There is no sense in which Plenum is opposed to government or opposed to the institutions that make government. In fact, Plenum was made necessary only because government was not working for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Had government truly been representative; did it really represent the people and the interests of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the “Bosnia Spring” would never have been necessary and Plenum would never have happened. But, insofar as everyone — including the elected authorities — recognize that government is not working, Plenum has been nearly universally recognized as the duly constituted authority of the City of Tuzla.
Perhaps one of the reasons Plenum has legitimacy — a bad word, I know — is that, unlike Occupy, it’s mantra has never been “we have no platform, we have no demands.” At some point, the authorities in the United States came to believe that Occupy was not lying, that they really did have no platform and that what demands they did have bordered on “world peace” and the “brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind.” Those are great ideals. Don’t get me wrong. But, government is government. And putting “world peace” into a City Council resolution — sorry Berkeley — is kind of a waste of time. Which means that when Plenum, again with overwhelming support, submitted its platform, its demands, to the authorities, with bodies in the streets to back up this platform, guess what: the premiers resigned and the City endorsed the platform of Plenum. No talk here in Tuzla of how bad power is or how evil force is. The issue was WHO has the power; the issue was WHO has the power to force the issue. And, at least in the case of Plenum, there was no question.IMG_2735
The third thing that struck me and continues to strike me is the diversity of people coming to participate in Plenum; old people, pensioners, business men and women, clerks, trades men and women, mom’s, old union hacks, all waiting their turn to say what they’ve been waiting since 1995 to say; and now they have a voice. No one is patting them on the head and asking, “Now, don’t you feel empowered?” People are listening to them and taking what they have to say seriously; so seriously, that they are putting what they have to say into motions and proposals that will, if approved, become the law of Tuzla.
Perhaps a fourth, overriding difference between Plenum and Occupy is that Plenum is unapologetically critical of capitalism and of the neoliberal policies that have created over 50% unemployment in this country of 3.5M. No one in Tuzla or elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia asked for the global economic downturn of the 1970s and 1980s. No one wanted Belgrade — at the time Yugoslavia’s capital — to implement the draconian cut-backs recommended by US neoliberal economists. All workers in the 1980s were in favor of a universal social franchise. But then the cuts kicked in and hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs. And families were reduced to all they had left: their ethnicity and their religion. Croatia and Slovenia pulled free, Croatia at a horrible cost. But Bosnia and Herzegovina maintained the dream of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, cosmopolitan nation. And they were punished for it. Now everyone — Croat, Serb, Bosniak — recognizes that it was capitalism that was creating the turmoil.
Occupy needed to be much more up front, much more vocal, about the social franchise. Plenum has learned its lesson. It is not going to sacrifice any of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s communities in order to make a dime.
Here is another instance where the United States and Great Britain could learn from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Occupy was important, perhaps indispensable. But Plenum is pointing the way to the future.