On April 23, 2009, a group of unemployed textile workers in Novi Pazar, southern Serbia, began a hunger strike. Their main demand – in the name of all 1,532 members of the Association of Textile Workers of Novi Pazar, Sjenica, and Tutin – was the payment of outstanding government-guaranteed wages, which in some cases had remained unpaid since 1992. On April 24, 2009, the leader of the association, Zoran Bulatovic, chopped off the little finger of his left hand and announced to the cameras that he was no longer part of the hunger strike because he was going to eat his own finger. Furthermore, he said, if the government in Belgrade continued to refuse to talk, one hunger striker would cut off a finger every day. As the last video message on YouTube announced: “They are all ready to do so if we get no positive answers”. After the independent TV station B92 broadcast the story, it was taken up by other local channels and briefly appeared in the European media.1
It is August 11, 2009. I have just arrived in Novi Pazar, location in April 2009 of the last major battle in the long drawn-out struggle of the unemployed textile workers. At the association’s office I meet with its leader Zoran Bulatovic and two of his colleagues. I do not need to ask many questions. The evening’s discussion lasts two and a half hours; nobody looks at their watch. The outcome is a long and informative recording on which the following text is based.
The plight of workers in Serbia today is comparable with the situation during the Great Depression of the 1930s in industrial Europe. Soup kitchens in the big cities feed those worst affected.2 Neoliberal restructuring has completely dismantled Yugoslavia’s once comprehensive welfare state, while runaway inflation in the early 1990s devastated ordinary people’s savings. The average income is currently 32,000 dinars (about 340 euros). Wage-earners are thrust into poverty, which is still worse if they lose their jobs. The poverty line in Serbia is currently 8,333 dinars (95 euros), affecting 490,000 citizens. But that impression is deceptive, for if the line were to be raised to 10,000 dinars (110 euros) the number of poor would double (Lopusina 2009, 5). Do not forget, we are talking about a once industrialised country whose wage level had begun approaching that of certain Western countries. Serbia’s nationalist and neoliberal governments have gambled away most of the gains of industrialisation that the socialist government built up in the decades following World War II. So who is to blame for this? In whose interests could it have been to reverse the country’s development in this way? And in whose interests could it have been to drive the workers into such desperate poverty that they resort to self-destruction? Many questions, which it will take time to answer properly. One trade union official in Novi Pazar put it like this: “It will be twenty years before it perhaps becomes clear who bought how much of what, on whose account – and how much of it the ruling elites in Serbia and elsewhere were able to stuff into their own pockets”. Perhaps then someone will also write about the destruction of labour, a cataclysm whose victims go uncounted.
Meeting so many self-confident workers in Novi Pazar, I had to ask myself how it was possible that these people had remained silent so long. How could workers who had gained at least rudimentary knowledge of the Yugoslavian self-management system, who had learned about things that workers in the West can only dream of, surrender without a struggle like this?3 I still have no real answer for this, but it is certain that the disempowerment of the workers took place step by step. It began at the beginning of the 1990s with a betrayal by the entire Communist Party leadership, permitting private property without guaranteeing the future of collective property. After that, it was only a question of time before all collective property was privatised. Next came the “Socialist Party” of Slobodan Milosevic, whose self-designation represented an historically unique simulacrum of leftist positioning (Blagojevic 2008, 125–8). Its combination of left-wing official rhetoric coupled with nationalist warmongering against the other peoples of Yugoslavia diverted the workers’ attention. The subsequent economic sanctions and the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia suited the economic elites very well, as they led to a reduction in the price of numerous properties that they were just in the process of purchasing. In this way, the sanctions offered an ideal path to low-cost expansion of private capital. Apart from the economic sanctions, whose principal target was Serbia, it can certainly be said that the same process occurred across the whole of the former Yugoslavia. The fifth column of the working class were the elites, who did everything they could to maintain their grip on power. The course of history in eastern Europe was a transition from the materially secured ideological elite to the economic power elite. In Luchino Visconti’s movie The Leopard, which illustrates very clearly how the same process occurred in Italy during the transition from feudalism to a capitalist nation-state, the aristocrat Tancredi asserts: “For things to remain the same, everything must change”. The novelty in the case of Yugoslavia and the whole Eastern bloc is that the entire elite embraced an ideology it had previously regarded as “backward” and fought against. Indeed, it was the struggle against this ideology that had gained them their elite status in the first place. Betrayed by bosses now exploiting for private gain workplaces hitherto run in the name of the workers, and bereft of the ideological tools of Marxist interpretation (many former “Marxists” suddenly became neoliberals), the working class was left in a theoretical and practical void, exacerbated still further by worries about how to make a living for themselves and their families. Hopes for a “democratic renewal of society” were dashed. The labour leaders of the new trade unions first and foremost represented themselves, working behind the scenes to accumulate as much power as possible and remain as close as possible to the exclusive redistribution loci of privatisation. Stojan Drcelic, comparing the Milosevic-era trade unions with their current counterparts, remarks that the former at least provided workers with cheap food and soap powder (2009). Describing the corruptibility of Serbian trade unions, sociologist Djokica Jovanovic notes that it is rare to come across a trade union leader or headquarters where you cannot see the “price label” at first glance (2008, 33).
The workers were left completely alone, until individuals and small groups began analysing the new structural conditions and reflecting rationally on what was happening to them. A new ripple of collective consciousness has emerged. Alongside the “nation of Yugoslavs” (which numbered about 1.5 million and was forced to disappear completely), the working class suffered the greatest exodus and was the greatest victim of the dismantling of Yugoslavia. But that seemed to trouble nobody, not even on the left. The Western institutional left, ensconced in its own national positions, was stewing in its own juices. It is the same story with the Western trade unions, which have been incapable of grasping the obligation of solidarity with the workers which comes with the shared space that capitalism creates on a daily basis by setting up and relocating businesses. How could the Austrian white-collar union, representing the staff of banks that have expanded massively in eastern Europe, ignore the fate of the staffs of those very same companies outside Austria’s borders? The same question can be asked of all trade unions operating in companies that have subsidiaries all over the world. How can they disown responsibility for fellow workers just because they live outside the national borders within which these neocolonial businesses have their headquarters? This narrow-minded nationalist stance will one day bring these unions a massive loss of legitimacy. Perhaps it already has.
The current situation of the elites in Serbia is very specific. Their backers in the West are no longer unconditionally behind them, so they have to think about how to safeguard their accumulated goods. There is no longer much in the way of collective property. Everything belongs to somebody, mostly former party officials, the top directors of the former factories, who are supposed to manage it in the service of their Western bosses. Until summer 2009, this involved a remarkable capacity to ignore the destruction of workplaces through privatisation. Serbia is returning to where it was before industrialisation: an agricultural society on the margins, standing in a semi-colonial relationship to the centre. The main opposition to de-industrialisation are those who have everything to lose, the workers, for Yugoslavia as a country of self-management was a country of the workers. The workers held a strong position in the factories (through workers’ councils) and in society. They were the real adversary that had to be destroyed if privatisation was to be carried out across the board. The tactic chosen for this was nationalism (from which Bulatovic distanced himself immediately at the beginning of our discussion). Strategic nationalism served above all as an ideological smoke-screen to conceal the looting. Now the perspective is expanding: Nationalism has lost its clout and even those who hoped for improvement through the plundering of their neighbours have been disappointed, while economic circumstances have stifled the willingness of their bosses in the West to accept waves of refugees. As the smoke clears, the public starts to perceive a landscape that hitherto was only perceptible in fragments: The landscape of the relations of labour. Objectively, the relations of labour were always there, but they were not a part of the public discourse, because it had something different to proclaim: the dissolution of labour solidarity by means of nationalism. As the landscape of relations of labour comes into view we see how it has been ravaged by two decades of neoliberalism and nationalism… but behind this we see people, we see those who were directly affected by this destruction, who live under conditions which go unreported in the mainstream media … who struggle day in, day out to escape annihilation on the declared path to the bright future of “democracy”. They are fighting for what is most essential – for their very physical integrity. In this situation, Bulatovic’s group intervenes to declare that physical integrity does actually exist, by claiming the right to their own body – up to and including self-destruction.
In Novi Pazar there is a working class, as there is across Serbia too, and wherever workers fight back. For the struggle, the exercise of dissent, is the sole indicator of the existence of the political subject. In June and July 2009 alone there were at least forty labour disputes in Serbia, mostly “wildcat” strikes.
So why is it only now, almost twenty years after the beginning of the transition, that social and political unrest is breaking out? First of all because the redistribution of collective property took place under the cloak of ethnicised conflicts. In public the talk was of “Serbs”, “Croats”, “Albanians”, and so on, whilst in the background, prodded and coordinated by Western multinationals, a theft of unseen dimensions was under way. Now there is a private owner for pretty much everything, and it turns out that the world is still a murderous game of rich and poor. “Ethnic cleansing” notwithstanding, the workers are still there and, as all concerned are beginning to realise, are a great deal more vulnerable than at any time in the past hundred years. The workers in eastern Europe find themselves dispossessed and exploited in a situation of “primitive accumulation of capital”. And there is another small but not insignificant difference: Accumulation of capital in the West occurred with a stratum of people who ultimately partly in order to deflect the negative consequences onto following generations attempted to channel the original greed in socially acceptable ways (i.e. the welfare state). The pirates had to live in the same state as those they plundered. But today a large part of the capital accumulated in the east flows to the centre – as evidenced (despite protestations to the contrary) by the way the invested billions very quickly found their way back from east to west when the financial crisis began in 2007.4 Protected by national borders, the actual beneficiaries will never be exposed to the new social unrest – this is the sophisticated tactic of the new rulers of eastern Europe. Even if social unrest does occur, it will only affect the proxy elites5 in these neocolonial shell states… while the actual rulers will complain all the more loudly about “the barbarians over there”6. The only remedy is a determined worldwide solidarity movement of all those who suffer under the rule of capital. In this respect there is an urgent need for the European left to act.
Through his deed, Zoran Bulatovic has done nothing less than to challenge the bounds of physicality, this today almost unquestioned fetish of material self-preservation. He (and with him the unemployed textile workers) uses violence to point up a much greater violence that threatens him and all others around him, and to stand up against it. Publicly he always emphasises that his act was carried out in the name of many – the single mothers, the sick, those injured at work, and also in the name of colleagues who have since died. Ultimately his list comprises the “wretched of the earth” of the working-class anthem. It could be said that this act of setting a limit to the humiliating and all-consuming violence of transition (toward primitive accumulation of capital and national de-industrialisation) through the utterly individual and immediate act of violence against the self, of self-mutilation, represents the absolute negation of the objective of neoliberal restructuring. For, as Hegel said, if there can be no servant because the servant is willing to put even his physical intactness on the line, he annuls the dependent position of the master. At least symbolically. That appears to be the ultimate point of the events in Novi Pazar. And that is why the opinion-creating machinery of the mainstream media immediately rushed to attack the event. Their strategy for obliterating, for hiding this so basic act of resistance of the poor and dispossessed against the rich was to place it in the category of the abnormal (in Novi Pazar and Serbia) or the Balkan mentality (in the West) through psychologisation, psychiatrisation, victimisation, and other familiar techniques of depoliticisation. Reading the few reports to appear in the Western media, I found it hard to escape the impression that they were turning Bulatovic into a victim. A victim to whose aid a host of overpaid servants of mediocre Western NGOs would hurry in the name of development. It was about burying the subversive content of his direct action. Senada Rebronja, Zoran Bulatovic’s deputy, stressed that she and the group immediately recognised this tendency of the media: “We protested against them making him into a psychopath. It must be clear to anyone that if the president of the association is a psychopath then all the other 1,500 unemployed members are too”. The struggle pursued by these people is not the struggle of an individual – when one could easily dismiss as psychotic – but a struggle conducted by the group, in the name of the group, for which the group takes responsibility in every respect.
The paucity of discussion within the left of this case reveals the prevailing perplexity in the face of the neoliberal offensive and the current crisis-led restructuring.
But what is to be done when labour – in a fully self-aware and rational decision – begins to destroy itself? These are not Luddites destroying their machines. This is mutilation of the self, in the conviction that this can bring about the demise not only of the worker, but also of the whole system built on labour. The last and holiest bastion of the capitalist logic of exploitation and the originator of surplus value, the labourer, says in a final desperate but absolutely rational act: No!
Zoran Bulatovic and the hunger-striking workers of Novi Pazar have put a new spotlight on this potential weapon of labour struggle, in a sense the zero-point of such struggles. The other extreme of struggle is represented by the general strike. Self-destruction of labour (so sought-after at the cheapest price) and its highest form of organisation in the general strike: between these two poles are thousands of other ways and means that have been developed and tested over the centuries. Many have unfortunately fallen into oblivion. The issue today is not only – and not only in eastern Europe – applying them, but also simply making workers aware of them. To dispel their quasi-religious fear of the property owners and their protectors, so that they can fight back using these techniques. At both the micro- and the macro-level workers have developed weapons that they can direct against the owners of the means of production. The achievement of the hunger strikers of Novi Pazar is to have reminded us again of that.
Blagojevic, Goran, “Levica u Srbiji na prelazu iz industrijskog u informacijsko drustvo”, in Sloboda Jednakost Solidarnost Internacionalizam: Izazovi i perspektive savremene levice u Srbiji, edited by Ivic Mladenovic and Milena Timotijevic, 113–38, Belgrade: Cugura print, 2008.
Bratic, Ljubomir, “Zur Frage der Transformation der Elite im Osten Europas”, 2008, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0208/bratic/de (accessed August 19, 2009).
Drcelic, Stojan, “Raspirivanje socijalnog mira”, NIN, August 13, 2009, 13.
Golic, Slavko, “(Ne)probojnost istine”, 2009, http://www.republika.co.yu/456-459/07.html (accessed August 18, 2009).
Interview with Zoran Bulatovic and Senada Rebronja on August 10, 2009, in Novi Pazar, Serbia.
Interview with the Murtezic family on August 10, 2009, in Novi Pazar, Serbia.
“Investitionsgewinne bleiben Osteuropa selten treu”, Neue Zürcher Zeitung 131 (June 10, 2009), 15.
Lopusina, Marko, “Prosjacki stap sve blize”, Novosti, August 3, 2009, 5.
Jovanovic, Djokica, “Jutarnje pitanje jednog sociologa”, in Sloboda Jednakost Solidarnost Internacionalizam: Izazovi i perspektive savremene levice u Srbiji, edited by Ivic Mladenovic and Milena Timotijevic, 17–36, Belgrade: Cugura print, 2008.
Mojic, Dusan, “Radnicka participacije danas: Svetska iskustva i nasa stvarnost”, in Sloboda Jednakost Solidarnost Internacionalizam: Izazovi i perspektive savremene levice u Srbiji, edited by Ivic Mladenovic and Milena Timotijevic, 231–59, Belgrade: Cugura print, 2008.
Todorova, Maria, Die Erfindung des Balkans: Europas bequemes Vorurteil, Darmstadt: Primus, 1999.