This summer, I spent almost a month in Serbia and Montenegro (yes, these are two different countries, despite New York Times still refusing to acknowledge this). This is about seven times as long as I normally would. The two principal reasons are that my mother, who lives in Belgrade, is ill, and that I was planning to get a bit of time to quietly sit and write my thesis on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro. How the latter turned out in light of the knowledge of the former I leave to imagination (tl;dr: not well). It did, however, give me ample time to reflect on the post-socialist condition, which I haven’t done in a while, and to get outside Belgrade, to which I normally confine my brief visits.
The way in which perverse necro/bio-politics of post-socialism obtain in my mother’s illness, in the landscape, and in the socio-material, fits almost too perfectly into what has been for years the dominant style of writing about places that used to be behind the Iron Curtain (or, in the case of Yugoslavia, on its borders). Social theory’s favourite ruins – the ruins of socialism – are repeatedly re-valorised through being dusted off and resurrected, as yet another alter-world to provide the mirror image to the here and the now (the here and the now, obviously, being capitalism). During the Cold War, the Left had its alter-image in the Soviet Union; now, the antidote to neoliberalism is provided not through the actual ruins of real socialism – that would be a tad too much to handle – but through the re-invention of the potential of socialism to provide, in a tellingly polysemic title of MoMA’s recently-opened exhibition on architecture in Yugoslavia, concrete utopias.
Don’t get me wrong: I would love to see the exhibition, and I am sure that it offers much to learn, especially for those who did not have the dubious privilege of having grown up on both sides of socialism. It’s not the absence of nuance that makes me nauseous in encounters with socialist nostalgia: a lot of it, as a form of cultural production, is made by well-meaning people and, in some cases, incredibly well-researched. It’s that resurrecting hipsterified golems of post-socialism serves little purpose other than to underline their ontological status as a source of comparison for the West, cannon-fodder for imaginaries of the world so bereft of hope that it would rather replay its past dreams than face the potential waking nightmare of its future.
It’s precisely this process that leaves them unable to die, much like the ghosts/apparitions/copies in Lem’s (and Tarkovsky’s) Solaris, and in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. In VanderMeer’s books, members of the eleventh expedition (or, rather, their copies) who return to the ‘real world’ after exposure to the Area X develop cancer and die pretty quickly. Life in post-socialism is very much this: shadows or copies of former people confusedly going about their daily business, or revisiting the places that once made sense to them, which, sometimes, they have to purchase as repackaged ‘post-socialism’; in this sense, the parable of Roadside Picnic/Stalker as the perennial museum of post-communism is really prophetic.
The necropolitical profile of these parts of former Yugoslavia, in fact, is pretty unexceptional. For years, research has shown that rapid privatisationincreases mortality, even controlled for other factors. Obviously, the state still feigns perfunctory care for the elderly, but healthcare is cumbersome, inefficient and, in most cases, barely palliative. Smoking and heavy drinking are de rigueur: in winter, Belgrade cafés and pubs turn into proper smokehouses. Speaking of that, vegetarianism is still often, if benevolently, ridiculed. Fossil fuel extraction is ubiquitous. According to this reportfrom 2014, Serbia had the second highest rate of premature deaths due to air pollution in Europe. That’s not even getting closer to the Thing That Can’t Be Talked About – the environmental effects of the NATO intervention in 1999.
An apt illustration comes as I travel to Western Serbia to give a talk at the anthropology seminar at Petnica Science Centre, where I used to work between 2000 and 2008. Petnica is a unique institution that developed in the 1980s and 1990s as part science camp, part extracurricular interdisciplinary research institute, where electronics researchers would share tables in the canteen with geologists, and physicists would talk (arguably, not always agreeing) to anthropologists. Founded in part by the Young Researchers of Serbia (then Yugoslavia), a forward-looking environmental exploration and protection group, the place used to float its green credentials. Today, it is funded by the state – and fully branded by the Oil Industry of Serbia. The latter is Serbian only in its name, having become a subsidiary of the Russian fossil fuel giant Gazpromneft. What could arguably be dubbed Serbia’s future research elite, thus, is raised in view of full acceptance of the ubiquity of fossil fuels not only for providing energy, but, literally, for running the facilities they need to work.
These researchers can still consider themselves lucky. The other part of Serbian economy that is actually working are factories, or rather production facilities, of multinational companies. In these companies, workers are given 12-hour shifts, banned from unionising, and, as a series of relatively recent reports revealed, issued with adult diapers so as to render toilet breaks unnecessary.
As Elizabeth Povinelli argued, following Achille Mbembe, geontopower – the production of life and nonlife, and the creation of the distinction between them, including what is allowed to live and what is allowed to die – is the primary mode of exercise of power in late liberalism. Less frequently examined way of sustaining the late liberal order is the production of semi-dependent semi-peripheries. Precisely because they are not the world’s slums, and because they are not former colonies, they receive comparatively little attention. Instead, they are mined for resources (human and inhuman). That the interaction between the two regularly produces outcomes guaranteed to deplete the first is of little relevance. The reserves, unlike those of fossil fuels, are almost endless.
Serbian government does its share in ensuring that the supply of cheap labour force never runs out, by launching endless campaigns to stimulate reproduction. It seems to be working: babies are increasingly the ‘it’ accessory in cafés and bars. Officially, stimulating the birth rate is to offset the ‘cost’ of pensions, which IMF insists should not increase. Unofficially, of course, the easiest way to adjust for this is to make sure pensioners are left behind. Much like the current hype about its legacy, the necropolitics of post-socialism operates primarily through foregrounding its Instagrammable elements, and hiding the ugly, non-productive ones.
Much like in VanderMeer’s Area X, knowledge that the border is advancing could be a mixed blessing: as Danowski and Viveiros de Castro argued in a different context, end of the world comes more easily to those for whom the world has already ended, more than once. Not unlike what Scranton argued in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene – this, perhaps, rather than sanitised dreams of a utopian future, is one thing worth resurrecting from post-socialism.
OK, I’ll admit the title is a bit of clickbait. I’ve never had a moment of doubt around strikes. However, in the past few weeks, as the UCU strike over pensions is drawing nearer, I’ve had a series of conversations in which colleagues, friends, or just acquaintances have raised some of the concerns reflected in, though not exhausted by, this title. So, I’ve decided to write up a short post answering some of these questions, mostly so I could get out of people’s Facebook or Twitter timelines. This isn’t meant to try and convince you, and even less is it any form of official or legal advice: at the end of the day, exercising your rights is your choice. Here are some of mine.
I am precariously employed: I can’t really afford to lose the pay.
This is a very serious concern, especially for those who have no other source of income or savings (and that’s quite a few). The UCU has set up a solidarity fund to help in such cases; quite a few local organisations have as well, and from what I understand early career/precarious researchers should have advantage in applying to these. Even taking this into account, this is by no means a small sacrifice to make, but the current pension reform means that in the long run, you would be losing much more than the pay that could be docked.
But I am not even a member of the Union!
Your right to strike is not dependent on your membership in a(ny) union. That being said, if you would like the Union to represent/help you, it makes sense to join the Union. Actually, it makes sense to join the Union anyway. Why are you not a member of the Union? Join the Union. Here, have a uni(c)o(r)n.
I am afraid of pissing off my supervisor/boss, and I rely on their good will/recommendation letters/support for future jobs.
There’s a high chance your supervisor is striking – after all, their pensions are on the line as well. Even if they are not, it is possible that if you calmly explain why you feel this is important, and why you think you should show solidarity with your colleagues, they will see your point (and maybe even join you). Should this not be the case, they have no legal way of preventing you from exercising your basic employment right, one that is part of your contract (which, presumably, they will have read!).
In terms of future recommendations, if you really think your supervisor is evaluating your research on the basis of whether you show up in the office, and not on the basis of your commitment, results, or potential, perhaps it’s time to have a chat with them. Remember, exercising the right to strike is not meant to harm your project, your colleagues, or your supervisor: it is meant to show disagreement concerning a decision that affects you, was taken in your name, but you most likely had little or no say over. Few supervisors would dispute your right to do that.
I’ll be able to strike when I’m more senior/securely employed.
UK abolished ‘tenure’ about thirty years ago, so no one’s job is completely safe. Obviously, of course, this doesn’t mean there are no differences in status, but unfortunately, experience suggests that job security does not directly correlate with the willingness to be critical of the institution you work in. Anyway, look at the senior academics around you. Either they are striking – in which case they will certainly support your right to do the same – or they are not, which would suggest that there is nothing to suggest you will if, and when, you get to their career stage.
Remember, this is why precarity exists: employers benefit from insecure/casual contracts exactly because they provide an army of reserve (and cheap) labour in case the permanently employed decide to strike. Which is exactly what is happening now. Don’t let them get away with it.
I don’t want to let my students down.
This obviously primarily applies to those of us who are teaching and/or supervising, but I think there is a broader point to be made: students are not children. Universities dispensed with in loco parentis in the 1970s. It’s fine to feel a duty of care for your students, but it also makes sense to recognize that they are capable of making decisions for themselves – for instance, whom they will invite to give a public lecture, how they will vote, or how they will interpret the fact their lecturers are on strike (here‘s a good example from Goldsmiths). Which is not to say you shouldn’t explain to them exactly why you are striking. Even better, invite them to help you organize or come to one of the teach-outs.
Think about it this way: next week, you can teach them one of the following: (a) how to stand up for their rights and show solidarity, or (b) how to read Shakespeare (sorry, English lit scholars, this came to mind first). You’ve got (according to employers’ calculations) 351 days in a year to do the latter. Will you use your chance to do the former?
I won’t even get to a pension; why should I fight for the benefits of entitled, securely employed academics?
If you are an employee of a pre-1992 university in the UK, chances are you are enrolled in the USS. This means you are accruing some pension through the system, thus the proposed changes are affecting you. The less you’ve been in the system – that is, the shorter the period of time you’ve been employed – the more of a difference it makes. Remember, entitled academics you are talking about have accrued most of their pension under the old system; paradoxically, you are set to lose much more than they are.
I feel this struggle is really about the privilege of white male dons, and does not address the deeper structural inequalities I experience.
It’s true that the struggle is primarily about pensions, and it’s true that the majority of people who have benefited from the system so far are traditionally privileged. This reflects the deeper inequalities of UK higher education, and, in particular, its employment structure. My experience is a bit of a mixed bag: I am a woman and ethnic minority, but I am also white and middle-class, so I clearly can’t speak for everyone, but I think that this is precisely why it’s important to be present in the strike. We need to make sure it doesn’t remain about white men only, and that it becomes obvious that higher education in England rests not on the traditional idea of a ‘professor’, but on the work of many, often precariously employed, early career researchers, women, minorities, non-binaries, and, yes, foreigners.
Speaking of that – I’m a foreigner, why should I care?
This is most difficult for me to relate to, not only because my work has been in and on the UK for quite a while but because, frankly, I’ve never felt like not a foreigner, no matter where I lived, and I always thought solidarity is international or it is nothing. But here’s my attempt at a more pragmatic argument: this is where you work, so this is where you exercise your rights as a worker. You may obviously have a lot of other, non-local concerns – family and friends in different countries, causes (or fieldwork sites) on other continents, and so on, but none of that should preclude the possibility to be actively involved in something that concerns your rights, here and now. After all, if you can show solidarity with Palestinian children or Yemeni refugees, you can show solidarity with people working in the same industry, who share many of your concerns.
There is a related serious issue concerning those on Tier 2 visas – UCU offers some guidance here; in a nutshell, you are most likely safe as long as you don’t intend to be absent without leave (i.e. consent from your employer) for many more consecutive days during the rest of the year.
There are so many problems with higher education, this seems like a very minor fight!
True. Fighting for pensions is not going to stop the neoliberalisation of HE or the precarisation of the academic workforce per se.
Yet, imagine the longer-term potential of an action like this. You will have met other (precarious) colleagues (especially outside of your discipline/field) on picket lines and at teach-outs; you will have learnt how to effectively organize actions that bring together different groups and different concerns; not least importantly, you will have shown your employer how crucial for teaching, and research, people like you really are. Now, that’s something that could come handy in future struggles, don’t you think?
The critique of neoliberalism in academia is almost as old as its object. Paradoxically, it is the only element of the ‘old’ academia that seems to be thriving amid steadily worsening conditions: as I’ve argued in this book review, hardly a week goes by without a new book, volume, or collection of articles denouncing the neoliberal onslaught or ‘war’ on universities and, not less frequently, announcing their (untimely) death.
What makes the proliferation of critique of the transformation of universities particularly striking is the relative absence – at least until recently – of sustained modes of resistance to the changes it describes. While the UCU strike in reaction to the changes to the universities’ pension scheme offers some hope, by and large, forms of resistance have much more often taken the form of a book or blog post than strike, demo, or occupation. Relatedly, given the level of agreement among academics about the general direction of these changes, engagement with developing long-term, sustainable alternatives to exploitative modes of knowledge production has been surprisingly scattered.
It was this relationship between the abundance of critique and paucity of political action that initially got me interested in arguments and forms of intellectual positioning in what is increasingly referred to as the ‘[culture] war on universities’. Of course, the question of the relationship between critique and resistance – or knowledge and political action – concerns much more than the future of English higher education, and reaches into the constitutive categories of Western political and social thought (I’ve addressed some of this in this talk). In this post, however, my intention is to focus on its implications for how we can conceive critique in and of neoliberal academia.
Varieties of neoliberalism, varieties of critique?
While critique of neoliberalism in the academia tends to converge around the causes as well as consequences of this transformation, this doesn’t mean that there is no theoretical variation. Marxist critique, for instance, tends to emphasise the changes in working conditions of academic staff, increased exploitation, and growing commodification of knowledge. It usually identifies precarity as the problem that prevents academics from exercising the form of political agency – labour organizing – that is seen as the primary source of potential resistance to these changes.
Poststructuralist critique, most of it drawing on Foucault, tends to focus on changing status of knowledge, which is increasingly portrayed as a private rather than a public good. The reframing of knowledge in terms of economic growth is further tied to measurement – reduction to a single, unitary, comparable standard – and competition, which is meant to ensure maximum productivity. This also gives rise to mechanisms of constant assessment, such as the TEF and the REF, captured in the phrase ‘audit culture‘. Academics, in this view, become undifferentiated objects of assessment, which is used to not only instill fear but also keep them in constant competition against each other in hope of eventual conferral of ‘tenure’ or permanent employment, through which they can be constituted as full subjects with political agency.
Last, but not least, the type of critique that can broadly be referred to as ‘new materialist’ shifts the source of political power directly to instruments for measurement and sorting, such as algorithms, metrics, and Big Data. In the neoliberal university, the argument goes, there is no need for anyone to even ‘push the button’; metrics run on their own, with the social world already so imbricated by them that it becomes difficult, if not entirely impossible, to resist. The source of political agency, in this sense, becomes the ‘humanity’ of academics, what Arendt called ‘mere’ and Agamben ‘bare’ life. A significant portion of new materialist critique, in this vein, focuses on emotions and affect in the neoliberal university, as if to underscore the contrast between lived and felt experiences of academics on the one hand, and the inhumanity of algorithms or their ‘human executioners’ on the other.
Despite possibly divergent theoretical genealogies, these forms of critique seem to move in the same direction. Namely, the object or target of critique becomes increasingly elusive, murky, and de-differentiated: but, strangely enough, so does the subject. As power grows opaque (or, in Foucault’s terms, ‘capillary’), the source of resistance shifts from a relatively defined position or identity (workers or members of the academic profession) into a relatively amorphous concept of humanity, or precarious humanity, as a whole.
Of course, there is nothing particularly original in the observation that neoliberalism has eroded traditional grounds for solidarity, such as union membership. Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos and Judith Butler’sNotes towards a performative theory of assembly, for instance, address the possibilities for political agency – including cross-sectional approaches such as that of the Occupy movement – in view of this broader transformation of the ‘public’. Here, however, I would like to engage with the implications of this shift in the specific context of academic resistance.
Nerdish subject? The absent centre of [academic] political ontology
The academic political subject, which is why the pun on Žižek, is profoundly haunted by its Cartesian legacy: the distinction between thinking and being, and, by extension, between subject and object. This is hardly surprising: critique is predicated on thinking about the world, which proceeds through ‘apprehending’ the world as distinct from the self; but the self is also predicated on thinking about that world. Though they may have disagreed on many other things, Boltanski and Bourdieu – both feature prominently in my work – converge on the importance of this element for understanding the academic predicament: Bourdieu calls it the scholastic fallacy, and Boltanski complex exteriority.
Nowhere is the Cartesian legacy of critique more evident than in its approach to neoliberalism. From Foucault onwards, academic critique has approached neoliberalism as an intellectual project: the product of a ‘thought collective’ or a small group of intellectuals, initially concentrated in the Mont Pelerin society, from which they went on to ‘conquer’ not only economics departments but also, more importantly, centres of political power. Critique, in other words, projects back onto neoliberalism its own way of coming to terms with the world: knowledge. From here, the Weberian assumption that ideas precede political action is transposed to forms of resistance: the more we know about how neoliberalism operates, the better we will be able to resist it. This is why, as neoliberalism proliferates, the books, journal articles, etc. that somehow seek to ‘denounce’ it multiply as well.
Speech acts: the lost hyphen
The fundamental notion of critique, in this sense, is (J.L Austin‘s and Searle’s) notion of speech acts: the assumption that words can have effects. What gets lost in dropping the hyphen in speech(-)acts is a very important bit in the theory of performativity: that is, the conditions under which speech does constitute effective action. This is why Butler in Performative agency draws attention to Austin’s emphasis on perlocution: speech-acts that are effective only under certain circumstances. In other words, it’s not enough to exclaim: “Universities are not for sale!Education is not a commodity!Students are not consumers!” for this to become the case. For this begs the question: “Who is going to bring this about? What are the conditions under which this can be realized?” In other words: who has the power to act in ways that can make this claim true?
What critique bounces against, thus, is thinking its own agency within these conditions, rather than trying to paint them as if they are somehow on the ‘outside’ of critique itself. Butler recognizes this:
“If this sort of world, what we might be compelled to call ‘the bad life’, fails to reflect back my value as a living being, then I must become critical of those categories and structures that produce that form of effacement and inequality. In other words, I cannot affirm my own life without critically evaluating those structures that differentially value life itself [my emphasis]. This practice of critique is one in which my own life is bound up with the objects that I think about” (2015: 199).
In simpler terms: my position as a political subject is predicated on the practice of critique, which entails reflecting on the conditions that make my life difficult (or unbearable). Yet, those conditions are in part what constitutes my capacity to engage in critique in the first place, as the practice of thinking (critically) is, especially in the case of academic critique, inextricably bound up in practices, institutions, and – not least importantly – economies of academic knowledge production. In formal terms, critique is a form of a Russell’s paradox: a set that at the same time both is and is not a member of itself.
Living with (Russell) paradoxes
This is why academic critique of neoliberalism has no problem with thinking about governing rationalities, exploitation of workers in Chinese factories, or VC’s salaries: practices that it perceives as outside of itself, or in which it can conceive of itself as an object. But it faces serious problems when it comes to thinking itself as a subject, and even more, acting in this context, as this – at least according to its own standards – means reflecting on all the practices that make it ‘complicit’ in exactly what it aims to expunge, or criticize.
This means coming to terms with the fact that neoliberalism is the Research Excellence Framework, but neoliberalism is also when you discuss ideas for a super-cool collaborative project. Neoliberalism is the requirement to submit all your research outputs to the faculty website, but neoliberalism is also the pride you feel when your most recent article is Tweeted about. Neoliberalism is the incessant corporate emails about ‘wellbeing’, but it is also the craft beer you have with your friends in the pub. This is why, in the seemingly interminable debates about the ‘validity’ of neoliberalism as an analytical term, both sides are right: yes, on the one hand, the term is vague and can seemingly be applied to any manifestation of power, but, on the other, it does cover everything, which means it cannot be avoided either.
This is exactly the sort of ambiguity – the fact that things can be two different things at the same time – that critique in neoliberalism needs to come to terms with. This could possibly help us move beyond the futile iconoclastic gesture of revealing the ‘true nature’ of things, expecting that action will naturally follow from this (Martijn Konings’ Capital and Time has a really good take on the limits of ‘ontological’ critique of neoliberalism). In this sense, if there is something critique can learn from neoliberalism, it is the art of speculation. If economic discourses are performative, then, by definition, critique can be performative too. This means that futures can be created – but the assumption that ‘voice’ is sufficient to create the conditions under which this can be the case needs to be dispensed with.
A serious line of division runs through my household. It does not concern politics, music, or even sports: it concerns the possibility of large-scale collapse of social and political order, which I consider very likely. Specific scenarios aside for the time being, let’s just say we are talking more human-made climate-change-induced breakdown involving possibly protracted and almost certainly lethal conflict over resources, than ‘giant asteroid wipes out Earth’ or ‘rogue AI takes over and destroys humanity’.
Ontological security or epistemic positioning?
It may be tempting to attribute the tendency towards catastrophic predictions to psychological factors rooted in individual histories. My childhood and adolescence took place alongside the multi-stage collapse of the country once known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. First came the economic crisis, when the failure of ‘shock therapy’ to boost stalling productivity (surprise!) resulted in massive inflation; then social and political disintegration, as the country descended into a series of violent conflicts whose consequences went far beyond the actual front lines; and then actual physical collapse, as Serbia’s long involvement in wars in the region was brought to a halt by the NATO intervention in 1999, which destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, including parts of Belgrade, where I was living at the time*. It makes sense to assume this results in quite a different sense of ontological security than one, say, the predictability of a middle-class English childhood would afford.
But does predictability actually work against the capacity to make accurate predictions? This may seem not only contradictory but also counterintuitive – any calculation of risk has to take into account not just the likelihood, but also the nature of the source of threat involved, and thus necessarily draws on the assumption of (some degree of) empirical regularity. However, what about events outside of this scope? A recent article by Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde offers a good formalization of this problem (the Black Swans and ‘unknown unknowns’) in the context of the (limited) possibility to imagine different outcomes (see table below). Of course, as Beck noted a while ago, the perception of ‘risk’ (as well as, by extension, any other kind of future-oriented thinking) is profoundly social: it depends on ‘calculative devices‘ and procedures employed by networks and institutions of knowledge production (universities, research institutes, think tanks, and the like), as well as on how they are presented in, for instance, literature and the media.
In The Great Derangement (probably the best book I’ve read in 2017), Amitav Gosh argues that this can explain, for instance, the surprising absence of literary engagement with the problem of climate change. The problem, he claims, is endemic to Western modernity: a linear vision of history cannot conceive of a problem that exceeds its own scale**. This isn’t the case only with ‘really big problems’ such as economic crises, climate change, or wars: it also applies to specific cases such as elections or referendums. Of course, social scientists – especially those qualitatively inclined – tend to emphasise that, at best, we aim to explain events retroactively. Methodological modesty is good (and advisable), but avoiding thinking about the ways in which academic knowledge production is intertwined with the possibility of prediction is useless, for at least two reasons.
One is that, as reflected in the (by now overwrought and overdetermined) crisis of expertise and ‘post-truth’, social researchers increasingly find themselves in situations where they are expected to give authoritative statements about the future direction of events (for instance, about the impact of Brexit). Even if they disavow this form of positioning, the very idea of social science rests on (no matter how implicit) assumption that at least some mechanisms or classes or objects will exhibit the same characteristics across cases; consequently, the possibility of inference is implied, if not always practised. Secondly, given the scope of challenges societies face at present, it seems ridiculous to not even attempt to engage with – and, if possibly, refine – the capacity to think how they will develop in the future. While there is quite a bit of research on individual predictive capacity and the way collective reasoning can correct for cognitive bias, most of these models – given that they are usually based on experiments, or simulations – cannot account for the way in which social structures, institutions, and cultures of knowledge production interact with the capacity to theorise, model, and think about the future.
The relationship between social, political, and economic factors, on the one hand, and knowledge (including knowledge about those factors), on the other, has been at the core of my work, including my current PhD. While it may seem minor compared to issues such as wars or revolutions, the future of universities offers a perfect case to study the relationship between epistemic positioning, positionality, and the capacity to make authoritative statements about reality: what Boltanski’s sociology of critique refers to as ‘complex externality’. One of the things it allowed me to realise is that while there is a good tradition of reflecting on positionality (or, in positivist terms, cognitive ‘bias’) in relation to categories such as gender, race, or class, we are still far from successfully theorising something we could call ‘ontological bias’: epistemic attachment to the object of research.
The postdoctoral project I am developing extends this question and aims to understand its implications in the context of generating and disseminating knowledge that can allow us to predict – make more accurate assessments of – the future of complex social phenomena such as global warming or the development of artificial intelligence. This question has, in fact, been informed by my own history, but in a slightly different manner than the one implied by the concept of ontological security.
Legitimation and prediction: the case of former Yugoslavia
Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had a relatively sophisticated and well developed networks of social scientists, which both of my parents were involved in***. Yet, of all the philosophers, sociologists, political scientists etc. writing about the future of the Yugoslav federation, only one – to the best of my knowledge – predicted, in eerie detail, the political crisis that would lead to its collapse: Bogdan Denitch, whose Legitimation of a revolution: the Yugoslav case(1976) is, in my opinion, one of the best books about former Yugoslavia ever written.
A Yugoslav-American, Denitch was a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. He was also a family friend, a fact I considered of little significance (having only met him once, when I was four, and my mother and I were spending a part of our summer holiday at his house in Croatia; my only memory of it is being terrified of tortoises roaming freely in the garden), until I began researching the material for my book on education policies and the Yugoslav crisis. In the years that followed (I managed to talk to him again in 2012; he passed away in 2016), I kept coming back to the question: what made Denitch more successful in ‘predicting’ the crisis that would ultimately lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia than virtually anyone writing on Yugoslavia at the time?
Denitch had a pretty interesting trajectory. Born in 1929 to Croat Serb parents, he spent his childhood in a series of countries (including Greece and Egypt), following his diplomat father; in 1946, the family emigrated to the United States (the fact his father was a civil servant in the previous government would have made it impossible for them to continue living in Yugoslavia after the Communist regime, led by Josip Broz Tito, formally took over). There, Denitch (in evident defiance of his upper-middle-class legacy) trained as a factory worker, while studying for a degree in sociology at CUNY. He also joined the Democratic Socialist Alliance – one of American socialist parties – whose member (and later functionary) he would remain for the rest of his life.
In 1968, Denitch was awarded a major research grant to study Yugoslav elites. The project was not without risks: while Yugoslavia was more open to ‘the West’ than other countries in Eastern Europe, visits by international scholars were strictly monitored. My mother recalls receiving a house visit from an agent of the UDBA, the Yugoslav secret police – not quite the KGB but you get the drift – who tried to elicit the confession that Denitch was indeed a CIA agent, and, in the absence of that, the promise that she would occasionally report on him****.
Despite these minor throwbacks, the research continued: Legitimation of a revolution is one of its outcomes. In 1973, Denitch was awarded a PhD by the Columbia University and started teaching at CUNY, eventually retiring in 1994. His last book, Ethnic nationalism: the tragic death of Yugoslaviacame out in the same year, a reflection on the conflict that was still going on at the time, and whose architecture he had foreseen with such clarity eighteen years earlier (the book is remarkably bereft of “told-you-so”-isms, so warmly recommended for those wishing to learn more about Yugoslavia’s dissolution).
Did personal history, in this sense, have a bearing on one’s epistemic position, and by extension, on the capacity to predict events? One explanation (prevalent in certain versions of popular intellectual history) would be that Denitch’s position as both a Yugoslav and an American would have allowed him to escape the ideological traps other scholars were more likely to fall into. Yugoslavs, presumably, would be at pains to prove socialism was functioning; Americans, on the other hand, perhaps egalitarian in theory but certainly suspicious of Communist revolutions in practice, would be looking to prove it wasn’t, at least not as an economic model. Yet this assumption hardly stands even the lightest empirical interrogation. At least up until the show trials of Praxis philosophers, there was a lively critique of Yugoslav socialism within Yugoslavia itself; despite the mandatory coating of jargon, Yugoslav scholars were quite far from being uniformly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about socialism. Similarly, quite a few American scholars were very much in favour of the Yugoslav model, eager, if anything, to show that market socialism was possible – that is, that it’s possible to have a relatively progressive social policy and still be able to afford nice things. Herein, I believe, lies the beginning of the answer as to why neither of these groups was able to predict the type or the scale of the crisis that will eventually lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.
Simply put, both groups of scholars depended on Yugoslavia as a source of legitimation of their work, though for different reasons. For Yugoslav scholars, the ‘exceptionality’ of the Yugoslav model was the source of epistemic legitimacy, particularly in the context of international scientific collaboration: their authority was, in part at least, constructed on their identity and positioning as possessors of ‘local’ knowledge (Bockman and Eyal’s excellent analysis of the transnational roots of neoliberalism makes an analogous point in terms of positioning in the context of the collaboration between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ economists). In addition to this, many of Yugoslav scholars were born and raised in socialism: while, some of them did travel to the West, the opportunities were still scarce and many were subject to ideological pre-screening. In this sense, both their professional and their personal identity depended on the continued existence of Yugoslavia as an object; they could imagine different ways in which it could be transformed, but not really that it could be obliterated.
For scholars from the West, on the other hand, Yugoslavia served as a perfect experiment in mixing capitalism and socialism. Those more on the left saw it as a beacon of hope that socialism need not go hand-in-hand with Stalinist-style repression. Those who were more on the right saw it as proof that limited market exchange can function even in command economies, and deduced (correctly) that the promise of supporting failing economies in exchange for access to future consumer markets could be used as a lever to bring the Eastern Bloc in line with the rest of the capitalist world. If no one foresaw the war, it was because it played no role in either of these epistemic constructs.
This is where Denitch’s background would have afforded a distinct advantage. The fact his parents came from a Serb minority in Croatia meant he never lost sight of the salience of ethnicity as a form of political identification, despite the fact socialism glossed over local nationalisms. His Yugoslav upbringing provided him not only with fluency in the language(s), but a degree of shared cultural references that made it easier to participate in local communities, including those composed of intellectuals. On the other hand, his entire professional and political socialization took place in the States: this meant he was attached to Yugoslavia as a case, but not necessarily as an object. Not only was his childhood spent away from the country; the fact his parents had left Yugoslavia after the regime change at the end of World War II meant that, in a way, for him, Yugoslavia-as-object was already dead. Last, but not least, Denitch was a socialist, but one committed to building socialism ‘at home’. This means that his investment in the Yugoslav model of socialism was, if anything, practical rather than principled: in other words, he was interested in its actual functioning, not in demonstrating its successes as a marriage of markets and social justice. This epistemic position, in sum, would have provided the combination needed to imagine the scenario of Yugoslav dissolution: a sufficient degree of attachment to be able to look deeply into a problem and understand its possible transformations; and a sufficient degree of detachment to be able to see that the object of knowledge may not be there forever.
Onwards to the…future?
What can we learn from the story? Balancing between attachment and detachment is, I think, one of the key challenges in any practice of knowing the social world. It’s always been there; it cannot be, in any meaningful way, resolved. But I think it will become more and more important as the objects – or ‘problems’ – we engage with grow in complexity and become increasingly central to the definition of humanity as such. Which means we need to be getting better at it.
(*) I rarely bring this up as I think it overdramatizes the point – Belgrade was relatively safe, especially compared to other parts of former Yugoslavia, and I had the fortune to never experience the trauma or hardship people in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, or Croatia did.
(**) As Jane Bennett noted in Vibrant Matter, this resonates with Adorno’s notion of non-identity in Negative Dialectics: a concept always exceeds our capacity to know it. We can see object-oriented ontology, (e.g. Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects) as the ontological version of the same argument: the sheer size of the problem acts as a deterrent from the possibility to grasp it in its entirety.
(***) This bit lends itself easily to the Bourdieusian “aha!” argument – academics breed academics, etc. The picture, however, is a bit more complex – I didn’t grow up with my father and, until about 16, had a very vague idea of what my mother did for a living.
(****) Legend has it my mother showed the agent the door and told him never to call on her again, prompting my grandmother – her mother – to buy funeral attire, assuming her only daughter would soon be thrown into prison and possibly murdered. Luckily, Yugoslavia was not really the Soviet Union, so this did not come to pass.