Interview with Aleksander Matković from the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory

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Aleksandar Matković is currently a PhD student and a research trainee at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory in Belgrade, dealing mainly with contemporary Marxism, theories of biopolitics and political economy. He is a member of the Association pour l’autogestion and the Group for Social Engagement Studies at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory. He’s also active in the left-wing Marxist scene in Novi Sad. They issue a journal with articles about Marxist theory, psychoanalysis, cultural theory and economical theory, called ‘Stvar’. So, he’s both active in the institutional and non-institutional left, which is the perfect place to give us a thorough political and social analysis of Serbia.


“We are witnessing a radical degradation and disintegration of the social standards in Serbia.”


“Unfortunately, our socio-economic position is getting worse day after day. There is a kind of race to the bottom that is linked to the EU integration. The privatisation process already started under the regime of Milosevic, but after his fall, the transition went faster and faster. In Slovenia and Croatia, it started a little bit earlier and it was really connected to the EU integration. Then, it also spread to Serbia. If you make an analysis of the institutional infrastructure in Serbia, you immediately feel the influence of the European Bank, the International Monetary Fund and political parties like the CDU from Germany. They insisted to realise, for example, the labour reform in 2014, a reform financed by the IMF and the USA. The Serbian economy needed to be reformed in the direction of more and often radical ways of privatisation and to open up our economy.


Basically, what happened was that the ex-Yugoslavian states became competitive to each other. Serbia needed to lower their wages to become more attractive for investors. Croatia and Slovenia had to do the same thing to keep up, so this leads to a race to the bottom. We are witnessing a radical degradation and disintegration of the social standards in Serbia. Local elites and local warlords plus ex-socialist party members who are now leading the parties in Serbia and Croatia are following the Washington consensus. They support the economical reforms, a policy prescription that first was established in the Latin American countries and follow the ten commandments of neo-liberalism: privatisation, consolidation, tax reforms, labour law reforms… IMF and the European Commission imposed all this, so it was not just an American thing. It was prescribed to developing countries in the Balkan. A former leader of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, called this ‘the silent revolution’. It starts at the end of the 1970s and became concrete in the Balkan with the first loans to Yugoslavia in 1988.


“The social property that once was an important characteristic of the Yugoslavian economy and identity, got lost.”


The process to transition is not something that started after the collapse of the Milosevic regime, it had already started in the 80s. The transition in Serbia goes back as far as 40 years, although many people still think today that it started after 2000. The consequence is basically that the working ex-self-managed collectives and enterprises were privatised. The social property that once was an important characteristic of the Yugoslavian economy and identity, got lost. Many people came from a factory where they experienced direct democracy on the working floor. Then came a huge rise of unemployment – five years ago the unemployment rate was around 27%, and youth unemployment was over 50%. So, while full employment was the first and most important policy of the Yugoslavian state, we suddenly experienced this huge counter image.


Capitalism was hailed as a saviour for the failed socialist states, but was one big lie. The propaganda for this kind of capitalism started with the coming of the first NGOs. Civil society movements were created by those kind of people and organisations, and they went hand in hand with a big rainbow coalition against Milosevic. Left wing, right wing, grass roots movements, liberals and anti-war activists tried to create an alternative, but a lot of those people grew to be active in the leading parties nowadays, and they became neo-liberal. Not only the European troika came to install neo-liberalism, they were helped by a kind of anti-communist front in our country, with politicians like Zoran Dindic who opposed imperialism, but at the same time joined the anti-communist coalition. This kind of anti-communist sentiment was a huge problem for the left-wing scene in Serbia and other Balkan states.


For sincere left-wing activists and politicians, it proved to be very difficult in those times to present socialist ideas not only as a bad thing from the past, but at the same time as something for the future. That is something that we still do today. We try to support social centres, grass roots movements, left-wing reading groups who are studying the works of Marx. We support the close reading of Marx, Althusser and the French thinkers.


“[I]t’s a kind of epistemological problem: [the workers] all share the same experiences, but they don’t see the model, the system.”


We’re slowly preparing our own politics. We defend an anti-neo-liberal agenda, we have the Left Summit of Serbia, and we have some new media outlets that can influence the Serbian public in a way. It’s still marginal, but we expect that it can be further developed the coming years. The left-wing summit is a platform of different unions, students, NGOs… It has around 300 members now. We expect to become a political party one day in the future. This should be the first left wing political party in Serbia that openly opposes neo-liberalism.


To be honest, the same process is happening again and again in each factory or enterprise. What I discovered from a former collaboration with some unions is that most of them expected good things from privatisation, but it always ended with debts and disillusions. I remember an Arabian investor who bought a factory that produced buses. Nobody checked him, the negotiations didn’t happen in an open and honest way, they didn’t respected the labour laws, so it all went wrong. This kind of wild capitalism was and is a recipe for disaster.


The workers themselves always expect good things from privatisation, but they all share the same experiences, so it’s a kind of epistemological problem: they all share the same experiences, but they don’t see the model, the system. They do not recognise that most of the other workers are struggling with the same problems: a lack of money, bad payments, low wages, exploitation and unemployment. Yugomedia, a chemical factory in Zrenjenin, is one of the examples of this. The workers of this self-managed factory started strikes against this kind op privatisation. Unfortunately, those strikes missed a body that coordinated resistance. New movements like the left Serbian summit can create hope in this country, movements that can coordinate such efforts and counter neo-liberal proposals. At the very least, they spread awareness that we are not alone, that there are many people who share our experiences.


“[The economical programme of Yugoslavia] totally differed from Stalin’s Russia. It was not a planned economy, but a kind of market socialism.”


Even after Yugoslavia broke apart, we still had some colouring books with Tito as a herald in my schooldays. I was born in 1988 and Tito was still an emblem in our country, but very soon the anti-communist sentiments were growing. The communist party underwent a crisis. You must know that in the fifties, there was the idea that the state should go away, and that the people would realise more and more self-management, withering away from the state,
a counter reaction to Stalinism. Self-managed enterprises were the first step. The partisans started to develop the idea of self-management during the Second World War. There was a small town in the south without state coordination. They started to produce their own products and were a kind of resistance during the war. Some of them got this idea from the Spanish civil war.


After the Stalin – Tito split they reactivated this experience and they made an economic program out of it. There was this guy called Kidric, a Slovenian economist that drafted the first economical programme based on self-management. It totally differed from Stalin’s Russia. It was not a planned economy, but a kind of market socialism. It functioned with workers councils at the base. So, the socialist enterprise worked with workers councils who were chosen by the workers. Some of the income was redistributed between the workers, not everything would go to the state. Some of the benefits were re-invested in the factory or in some social aspects around the economy, like a sports field, or a library, or a swimming pool. This created a new type of nationality between the workers.


However, the infrastructure was not something that came from the state, but was created by the workers. What the state, the parties and unions did, was teaching their ideas about economy to the people. This was mind-blowing and very emancipatory. The idea and hope was to transform the workers and the citizens with the idea to become autonomous people, an association of free producers. The Anti-fascist Women Group taught things based on their needs during the fifties. People taught each other how to realise this kind of economy and community. There was no capitalistic accumulation based on private property. There was social property and funds where the accumulated capital from the social enterprises would go to be redistributed to the people. This was a new step, a new kind of civilisation in Eastern Europe. We had free elections, free citizens, a good gender balance and many forms of self-management. Don’t forget that we were for a long period an Ottoman colony. This was the first time that the worker had his own swimming pool, essential heating and free accommodation. Everybody had their own apartment. People had the right to live, right to accommodation.


This lasted until the 90s. Milosevic was the first to privatise these accommodations. He and his party relegated the decision making to the specific republics. Milosevic came to Serbia and said: “These old communist guys are bureaucratic, they are keeping us from progress.” He combined an anti-Western mentality and a growing nationalism and used this to wither away from the state as a pretext for nationalism. The people who became anti-communist didn’t oppose communism as such. You must know that in the 80s there were huge protests for more and better communism. So, in the first place, they were opposing the Milosevic regime. Today, we experience a kind of Yugonostalgia, not only the older people, also youngsters. People are not allergic to communism as such.


“It’s new that the right wing movements and parties use populism. It’s a symptom of the decay of neo-liberalism: political correctness, free speech, social dialogue are things that are failing now.”


Regarding populism, you must know that populism was supposed to be something from the left. Anti-establishment rhetoric in Germany in the 1920’s was not right-wing, but left-wing populism. It’s new that the right wing movements and parties use populism. It’s a symptom of the decay of neo-liberalism: political correctness, free speech, social dialogue are things that are failing now, not only in the US with Donald Trump but also here in Slovenia, Serbia, Italy with Berlusconi and in the UK with Brexit. This also has something to do with post-truth politics. People are mobilised more and more not by facts, but by emotions and experiences, which allows you to say anything you want. The right is re-appropriating something that was from the left. Their purpose is to cover up social conflicts and growing inequality. The danger of this – like the growing anti-migrants rhetoric – is that this idea is politically and ideologically the only possible way to mobilise people nowadays, unfortunately. The left has not been able to provide an answer. One part of the left – people like Ernst Laclau and Chantal Mouffe – go on to say: “we can appropriate this.” They believe that the left can use populism as a weapon, but you never may forget left-wing universalism. You cannot include everyone in populism. Let’s take Hilary Clinton for example. Her failure is that she wanted to create a coalition between LGBT people, right-wing people and the Occupy Wall street movement and pitched the idea to different groups to beat Donald Trump with something bigger. But she missed the ideological idea of anti-capitalism. So, left wing, without anti-capitalism, is not left wing at all for me.


“We need to invite all the people to think and act under a universal banner that opposes nationalism. It’s important to think and speak in emancipatory terms.”


The key point is universalism. You cannot make a choice for a chain of empty signifiers to mobilise and convince people. Race, gender differences and class distinctions should be abolished. We need to invite all the people to think and act under a universal banner that opposes nationalism. It’s important to think and speak in emancipatory terms. The moment that you forget emancipation, you are coming into a kind of political correctness. You speak about identities and the multiplication aspects of it, but you don’t open emancipation. It just regulates free speech, but it’s a symptom of failure, typical for neo-liberalism. The left needs to put emancipation on the agenda. In Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and other post socialist countries you can see the rise of nationalism again, but starts from the so called left-wing movements. This should be opposed.


There is the history of the third way. Not only Blair, but also the history of the fascist parties, who presented themselves as not socialists and not capitalists. Some German workers unions were fully integrated in this fascist regime, together with capitalistic companies. This was the institutionalisation of this idea. After the fall of fascism you also had in Germany a kind of third way politics, long before Blair. This third way idea is that you cover up all the (class) differences. The same danger occurs in the identity politics. They present it as a present for the left wing but it’s a very liberal idea: to think that we need to accept all the differences between people in a political way but not in an economical way. You can say and do whatever you want as long as you are poor, without touching the real political issues and struggles. A concrete example here is the gay alliance, the gay pride that rejected the support from the workers and the students, because they wanted to pronounce their own, specific identity. Those different struggles are not connected and are therefore lost. They don’t have any political power. This is a mistake based on identity politics.


“In the new precarious labour laws, they created a new definition of ‘time’, no legal document has ever done this.”


The new labour laws in Serbia were copied: Slovenia copied from Austria, Croatia from Slovenia, Serbia from Croatia. These laws legitimate already existing precarious working conditions. So if you are employed here, you are not longer protected any more. In the new precarious labour laws, they created a new definition of ‘time’, no legal document has ever done this: labour time is the time you spend carrying out your job at the place you work, but linked to the standby time, the time you need to be available for your boss or company but you are not paid for this time. You have to sit and wait, without being paid. This standby time is incorporated in the new labour law. Some workers are six hours a day available and are not paid for it. At the same time you have the dual education system in Serbia that will be implemented. High school students will be forced to work, without being paid or only half the minimal wage in the best case. The high schools are entering a competition now. They want to become connected to the Chamber of Commerce and the needs of the market. As a high school you need to be valuable for the market, other wise your education program will not be accredited.


So, high schools will install unpaid work in function of the free market. So, you don’t have to work to be employed. Career, employment, work and payment are four different things, where they once were one. You can work without having a job now. We are again confronting a kind of monarchical power. People are not allowed to think alternatively any more. There is also a media blackout in Serbia, most of the media are controlled by the ruling government. The left needs to create its own media en distribution infrastructures.


“I hope to be part of a countermovement of workers, students and media activists with the hope to build new institutions based on the idea of self-management.”


I’m into politics too long now to believe that I will become active in party politics. I hope to be part of a countermovement of workers, students and media activist with the hope to build new institutions based on the idea of self-management. To oppose what is going on now. Let’s call it a counter infrastructure, so that we can re-articulate the position of the workers and the students. The ruling progressive party in Serbia is sustaining itself in creating a parallel welfare state apparatus. It’s disintegrating the reminiscence of the social state and they pay people to vote for them. They are blackmailing people, they are controlling access to public enterprises. You have a state within a state. There is the ruling party, the state and the institutions that have lost their autonomy. I’m not sceptical towards institutions. They need to fight to preserve their own autonomy and I think that the left should focus more on the institutions. We need to change them and create new ones. We need, for example, to re-articulate the unions, they are too close to their economical branches now, without intersectional interactions and communication. The youth sections are too passive, there is no coordinating body that connects the different unions and the students.


Also, there are a lot of educational programs of the left but we need to organise this, not only for the left-wing public, but also for whole the society. If you want to change Serbia and Europe, you need to create the conditions to realise a change. These conditions are as well in movements, institutions and political parties. Before the EU elected parliament will listen to the citizens from below, you need to create a political force that is tangible enough to be taken seriously. You can’t just bring grassroots movements to the European parliament; this will lead to nothing. I want to relate to DieM25 with Varoufakis, which I support to some extend, but which I want to see supplemented with some more institutional support. Cities are also becoming more and more important for institutional change. Think of the Rog factory in Ljublana, or the movement Let’s not drown Belgrade, the waterfront initiative. Those movements are crucial for the future of the cities. The cities are often organised not on behalf of the needs of the people, but on behalf on the needs of the market. This is the most visible part of the market you can find and see: new buildings, new shopping malls and the demolition of old and historical important buildings. As a citizen you feel this very directly. These city movements are resisting the segregation that this policy provokes, they are confronting the city government from different points and angles.


“You need to know that the parliaments all over Europe are class blind.”


You need to know that the parliaments all over Europe are class blind. From the moment that the workers entered the parliament in the 1920s and the years before the start of fascism, they started to control the economy and the production forces, but where are the workers now? You have a dual citizenship, because the market is ruling the political world and our parliaments. The market is determining your rights at the moment. Interesting is that the recent manifestations and actions were not planned. Between 7.000 and 10.000 people went up the streets in Novi Sad recently. People were also shouting from the buses and buildings and what they did in this small period of ten days, was putting back social problems on the agenda, such as labour laws, free education and concrete economical and political problems. Free speech and free media are very important, but we need also to defend the basic conditions of the reproduction of the working class, the basic conditions for the existence, thus not only political, but also economical demands. The recent months we discussed a delegate system from below by creating public assemblies and educational workshops with the goal do dedicate to put pressure on the parliament, to draw back some laws and some reforms.


The social movements in Serbia where I am part of in Novi Sad en Belgrade raised up very spontaneously but they also disappeared very quickly. It’s still a mystery to me. I really hope that in the near future we can organise something that is not a left-wing sect, not a populist group. And I hope that we can influence from below the ruling powers. If you remain grassroots, you have the risk that you will be bound to local issues. If you only go into the parliament, you will be bound to corruption, manipulation and in the best case to compromises. I still believe in the triangle: movements, parliament and institutions. Maybe this is a new model for the future in Serbia and hopefully also Europe.”

Interview by Victoria Deluxe
Photo by Maria Little

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