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Civil Society and Political Work on the Left

A talk delivered at the conference Predicaments of the Left - Conjunctures, Strategies, Perspectives organized by the Centre for Labour Studies, 17-19 October 2013, Goethe-Institut, Zagreb.

Let me begin by looking at the history of the predicament on the left in Croatia and voicing an opinion that some in this round probably won’t agree with. And I’m happy to discuss, as my arguments here are admittedly more of an experiential character and crudely pragmatical rather than well researched or scholarly. I’m neither expert in matters of organizational form of the left, nor in matters of understanding the civil society, nor in matters recent history. I was asked by the organizers, whom I thank for their invitation and friendly encouragement, to present on this topic as a continuation of some previous informal discussions. Therefore, please take the arguments that follow as potentially mistaken and hopefully polemical.

Understanding the predicament of the left, in retrospect

Harsh judgments have recently been passed on the role of leftist civil society organizations have played in the processes of social transformation in Croatia over the last two-three decades. Judgments that are in part warranted, in part mistaken. And that can probably be best understood as a work of ideological resetting on the left. The narrative goes along these lines: civil society initiatives and organizations of the 90s and early 00s have provided legitimation for the implementation of liberal reforms that once in place obfuscate the structural violence of capitalism behind the painfully achieved standard of liberal proceduralism. Transfixed by the violence of war, ethnic conflict and nationalist chauvinism, they remained focused on the aberrations of local flavors of capitalism in the guise of tycoons, cronyism and criminal aspects of privatization, while remaining blind to the violent and aberrant character of the capitalism as a system premised on exploitation. Ultimately, they served as a handmaiden in the process of replacement of the local criminal capitalist class with the less individual, more abstract and more civilized forms of international corporate and financial capital, helping the liberal comprador bourgeoisie displace the crony nationalist bourgeoisie that carried out the work of primitive capitalist accumulation of the first moment.

While these recriminations do serve the purpose of drawing the ideological faultlines between the positions on the left - or if you prefer, between the positions of the left from the liberal left - and cause some ideological soul searching, they are not entirely true as they misconstrue a specific historic evolution of liberalism that the local political and economic system is nowadays embedded in. Admittedly though, the assumptions behind these recriminations probably do help us to understand the present moment and the dominant mindset of many among even progressive organizations, in so far as they schematically delineate the structural position of civil society in a liberal capitalist context. That position is defined by the ‘division of labor’ in capitalist democracies between the three sectors of the society, where the remit of civil society is dictated from without by the state and/or the capital. Whatever civil society can achieve happens with the kind permission of those two. Hence, civil society on its own does not hold the capacity to transform the social dynamic, but it serves as a corrective and structurally absorbs its contradictions.

But the said harsh judgments fail to understand the specific driving forces behind the evolution of political and economic liberalism in Croatia. Stating it bluntly, the liberal capitalism was part and parcel of the nationalist program to start with. Also the transformation and privatization of the productive sector were sanctified by the same ideological ferment that pushed the society into the monoethnic nation-state. The roots of this ideological ferment can be traced back to the late Yugoslav period, where a general feeling of discontent with the economic and political system, caused by a hard and protracted economic crisis that started in the late 60s or early 70s, was wide-spread among broad segments of the society. By the end of the 80s, particularly after the failure of Ante Marković’s structural adjustment program and with ethnic tensions already at a boiling point, the overriding popular sentiment was that the Yugoslav social and economic model had failed. Many were ready to bail out on Yugoslavia as it was. And the nationalists provided the quick and dirty way out of that turmoil. This resignation can help explain the blank slate consent that broad segments of the society had given to the potent admixture of nationalism and capitalism.

But the important point is this: it was the self-same historic actors, who would shortly thereafter go on to transform the nascent nationalism and nascent capitalism into war and accumulation by dispossession, that paid the lip service to the liberalism and to a degree even put its institutional foundations in place. In fact, their own deeds would paradoxically fail on the liberal standards that they themselves have promulgated - an insight that was voiced by the perplexed Andrija Hebrang couple of years ago when expressing his wonderment at the fact that it is them who have created the Croatian state that are now being criminalized by the state they themselves have created. But the liberalism that was part and parcel of their nationalist program was not there for reasons of organic complementarity with their nationalist ideology. Rather it was a standard element in the reformist narratives of the late Yugoslav period that desperately sought and could not come up with an alternative model to capitalist democracy to salvage at least some elements of the Yugoslav social and economic exception. The nationalist embraced the liberalism exactly because it was an already existing part of the popular imaginary of social transition. A vessel that allowed them to come to power and follow through their program. It’s a complex historical evolution, but obviously liberalism was more than merely an oppositional project of progressives and professional elites that was installed only once the nationalists and their cronies were out of the game or a set of disciplining measures forced upon them by the international community. In a way, it remains the intellectual task for the left to provide a plausible historical narrative for the Yugoslav dissolution and to disentangle the civil and social rights from their corporatist nationalist and possessive individualist trajectories.

That work of disentanglement will probably also have to give an account of the other factors that have led to the lasting turmoil of the left since the 90s and the predicaments it faces today. Let me briefly mention a few that bear significance for my debate later. First and foremost, the abandonment of the Yugoslav social and economic model by the Communist Party. Having found themselves on the defensive facing the processes of dissolution and the rise of nationalism, the Croatian Communists, for instance, have completely abdicated from the political power, ceding the political territory to nationalists fair and square. Another important factor was either the dismantling or marginalization of the relatively progressive institutional framework that existed in Yugoslavia, particularly in the field of organized labor, youth and culture. The exception was social institutions and protections that were left partially intact to buffer off the adverse effects of nationalist and capitalist offensive. The left has entered the 90s without the organization and the institutions.1

So - to summarize - the impediments that the left in the 90s, whatever was there was of the left in the 90s, was forced to regroup and work under were: the withdrawal of the support for the anti-capitalist project both by the broad segments of the society and the ruling elites, the transformation of property relations, the short shrift given to the pluralist composition of Yugoslav society and the ensuing war, the foreclosure of the left and the dismantling of its institutional foundations. Except for the trade unions, hurt by convertism and initial disorientation; rare beleaguered academic institutions, mostly in the humanities; and several independent media outlets, it could only have sought to continue to function outside of the state, the market and the party. This also set the clear limits on the left, now working within the civil society - it was marginal, oppositional, anti-populist and modernist. It mostly focused on the brutal exclusions created by the war and privatization or picked up the work from the dismantled progressive institutions of the system. It was reduced to appellative politics and struggling to find resources for its own work. Going back to the harsh judgment leveled against the civil society on the left that I’ve started from: all this doesn’t fully absolve it from the critique, it did settle within the limits tolerated by the state and the market, particularly as we go more and more into the 00s, but does point to where the continuity of the structural predicament of doing the work on the left still lies today. So let me turn to:

Understanding the predicament of the left, as currently functioning within limits of civil society

Much has changed since the latter part of the 90s, when my organization started to work. There has been a wide-spread revival and acceptance of the anti-systemic analysis and several large-scale anti-systemic movements. Furthermore, the institutional landscape, particularly the public broadcasting service and trade unions, have opened up to the positions of the left. Some on the left are even trying to penetrate the structures of existing parties or are considering entering the fray of electoral politics with new projects. But for many on the left working within forms and formats of organized civil society remains an objective circumstance under which they have to reproduce and sustain their political work in the coming future.

Assuming that we do want to transcend the limited remit of civil society, constrained by the state on the one and the capital on the other hand, in the remaining talk I will try to focus in more detail on the constraints and challenges that follow from the objective circumstance of working within civil society in the present moment in Croatia: challenges that have to do with the organizational form, conditions of labor, operative dynamics, media and finally broader set of strategies that I think are needed to lead us out of the defensive that in spite of the changing landscape still we still find ourselves in. On the risk of sounding aseptic and bureaucratic, I will try to look at things from a more pragmatic side of tasks that lie ahead.

a) deficits of organizational form

Self-organization admittedly allows for a lot of maneuvering space, as one is responsible primarily to one’s own purposes and fellow comrades. There are few limitations set by the institutional arrangement of an association and few interests to negotiate. Collective action can unfold quickly without the complicated processes of deliberation and balancing of opposing views. However, this tactical facility comes at a price. Weak institutional constraints and lack of potentially paralyzing rank and file also indicate that the organization has a weak leverage on the context and lacks the support of broader social forces, a base that will back up its political activities.

In that respect, civil society organizations stand in contrast to trade unions. While the capacity of trade unions to react is often slow because it requires the coordination of the rank and file, once the industrial action has been agreed upon it has a broad union membership to back it up and can easily succeed. At the same time, due to the deindustrialization, bleeding of membership, compartmentalization of union work into single trades and hawkish media reporting, trade unions have very limited political maneuvering space. While they can negotiate the material conditions for their members, it is rarely that they have the mandate and the strategy to transcend the struggle for immediate demands of their membership. The importance of the struggle for wages and better conditions or against bad labor legislation cannot be overstated. But it rarely can succeed in transcending that narrow scope and overturning the overriding political dynamics.

Unlike trade unions, the political parties of the left (although in Croatian parliamentary landscape neither the Social Democrats nor the Labor strictly speaking deserve that qualifier) are more and more resembling civil society organizations. Their membership has dwindled too and they no longer have the broad political base and social constituencies that would dictate the political orientation from the bottom up and that they would be in turn held accountable to. When in power, they no longer pursue a political strategy, but are reduced to a technique of governance over the social and economic affairs that is primarily driven by the approval rates and extra-democratic alliances with media, capital and international institutions. Entrenched positions in the party reflect more the interests of middle and top party ranks than that of broad social constituencies. And while some positions in the party might be more germane to the interests of various social groups it purports to represent, on the whole it remains volatile and dependent on the sway of public opinion. This is a condition, in some quarters also known as a post-political condition, that is shared by most of the social democratic and older parties of the left in Europe today.

b) conditions of work, stability of activities, transforming the framework of own work

It is clear that broader anti-systemic political mobilization has a difficult and complex task ahead of it. It has to articulate critical positions, create alliances with trade unions, mobilize other social forces and understand that without taking power no victory or concession will have a lasting effect on the policy and the transformation of social arrangements. Its a puzzle that needs to be pieced together from different sides and hinges on the careful building of trust, detection of opportunities and forging of alliances.

Even in situations of successful mobilization of, and alliance with broader social forces, the bonds tend to remain brittle and can be difficult to sustain in the long run, as the interests between the actors are structurally different and focuses of their respective work tend to grow apart over time. Hence the tensions between trade unions and civil society organizations that we’re all familiar with. The alliances that will be able to withstand the test of time need not be built on more than discussion, understanding and joint action, they will require also the meeting of structural interests.

And there are, indeed, shared focuses and interests between activists and broader sectors of labor that require addressing and can build more than just an interventionist dimension of alliance with the trade unions. Namely, unless better conditions for project-based work can be created among activists, and unless unions find a way to address the problem of increasing numbers of flexibilized workforce, it will be a short ride together. It is not only that the trade unions need help from this side. In fact, the opposite might be the case. Many of the newly created organizations won’t be able to continue working over a longer period of time unless they are able to secure the livelihood of their activists and the resources needed for the organizational work. This means finding ways within organizations of securing social stability for the people working, but also advocating and securing fairer remuneration of labor and structural support in the respective fields. It is highly alarming that the part of civil society activities that was hit hardest by the austerity measures are the activities in the field of social care and labor, where for instance the multiannual support was cut last year by 60%. If the growing plethora of leftist initiatives and organizations is to survive in the long run, the effort needs to be undertaken in advocating policy changes that will bring more support for the work in the field. This could have long-term effects on the stability of activities, create better working conditions, prevent the bleeding of people who will eventually have to leave to do something else to secure their livelihood.

Some such innovations have been done in culture and media, where there have been intermittent yet lasting improvements for the actors working outside of the institutions of the system. But in the field of social care and labor that advocacy and policy effort needs to be done with greater persuasiveness and done urgently. With the foreign funders being so few, the importance of this policy work cannot be understated. And these innovations have to be made whenever possible through policy change, so that they cannot be easily undone once the forces in power change.

As a side note, the operative constraint to sustain the organization, its resources and livelihood of people can also have limitative effects. Projects with funder-driven activities have to be pursued, organizational bureaucratization threatens, meaningful activities have to be fit into a year-by-year project cycle dictated by funding opportunities, made standardized to requirements of funding bodies and ultimately replaceable with any other similar activity.

c) policy and advocacy

But looking beyond the securing of conditions for own work, there is a number of challenges in policy and advocacy work that are waiting to be taken up. Firstly, as was discussed a moment ago, it is the transformation of labor legislation and growing flexibilization of work arrangements that is a labor issue of double relevance for the reproduction of the left. While precarity has been a constant feature for those working in activist and media organizations, it has over the last decade become also the prevailing condition for the greater part of the workforce. This is a topic where trade unions face limitations: precarious workers are not easy to unionize, unionization only increases the insecurity of precarious workers, wage dumping through precarious workers is hurting unionized workers. Ultimately, unions are losing their membership to the flexibilization of work arrangements. It is thus around this topic that alliances can be forged. Activist organizations, not being bound by the social compact, might command the more maneuvering space that is not available to trade unions and can discursively articulate, advocate and mobilize broader forces around policy change.

Furthermore, it is the protection of public and communal services from another wave of marketization and privatization that will no doubt remain a catalyzing activity for the non-institutional left. There’s a direct link between the commodification of public services, whereby their provision is subsumed under the logic of profit extraction and whereby the equality of provision is subordinate to the rationalization of costs of labor and investment, and the reduction of workforce and their rights. And this link, increasingly becoming clear to the public through the growing prices of commodified services and the looming cost of socialization of private risk to taxpayers, can in turn serve as a basis for broader mobilizations beyond the immediate interests of one’s own constituency.

However, this link still requires explaining to the public in order to become obvious. And this needs to be done before its too late. But it is a difficult task given that the commercial media are hawkishly pitting users of services against the providers of services. Or pitting private sector workers against public sector workers by exploiting the asynchronous trajectories of proletarianization. As can be seen from the recent campaign of the daily Jutarnji list who has joined forces with private health service providers, spreading fear, uncertainty and danger over public services is more than just an ideological sleight of hand - its an actual business model allowing print media to expand into other businesses.

d) assailing the media

Speaking of media, it is the change of media policy that calls for attention too. While creating independent media outlets in print or on the internet is important for the articulation of critical discourse, analysis and creation of shared orientation within the leftist ranks, obviously a successful counterhegemonic strategy cannot be achieved without a penetration into the mainstream broadcasting media. Public broadcasting service is an important element in that strategy, however it is a volatile institution, dependent on the sway of political forces and institutional power game. Education of professional journalist is important too.

However, significant changes are needed in the spectrum allocation and public media financing policies, giving priority - after years of privileging commercial media - to non-commercial professional and community radio and television stations. The parity between commercial and non-commercial has to be established across all scales and territories of frequency allocation. Non-commercial allocations in small communities where commercial media find no interest are important, but it is only there where the competition for the airwaves is strong and the audiences are large that a struggle for the heart and mind can be pursued. It is thus, in Croatian case, the Council for Electronic Media and the Ministry of Culture that have to be pushed to set the allocation and financing priorities accordingly.

e) a variety of strategies

Obviously all these constraints and challenges in building a sustainable civil society work on the left that I have emphasized - securing material resources needed for work and activities, forging alliances with other actors on the left, advocating policy changes in labor regulation, public services and media - they all have to go hand in hand with the work in education, expert bodies, political committees and governance structures. As recent activist campaigns have demonstrated, it is only the capacity to engage a variety of parallel strategies - critical analysis, popular mobilization, juridical contestation, advocacy, media and last but not least transgression - that allows for political subjectivation that stands any chance of calling into question the iron logic of neoliberal doctrine.

But they have also shown that regardless of the scale and impact they are still not enough to bring about the desired change. Struggles that have mobilized the largest popular support and energies are being lost to political actors that are now leading us into another round of comprehensive marketization and privatization of public sector and public resources. It stands to reason that without taking political power, or at least a strategically significant part in it, struggles will continue to be lost. Without the entry into the electoral political fray, however, there will be little chance for the left of achieving lasting changes. By placing all our eggs into the electoral basket - for reasons of structural deficits of the political system that I have outlined - even less. We need to explore the opportunities for electoral engagement, all the while continuing the work on other fronts. In what organizational form and on what occasion, remains open for careful consideration.

  1. (With the notable exception of the trade unions, which succeeded to maintained some of their resources and operative integrity, and after the initial confusion and failure to deal with the nationalism and lay-offs of Serbian workers, would start the first industrial actions in ’92-93)