The “us against them” blockade dominating Balkan societies needs to be infected with the virus of libertarian hedonism in order to break open.
This article originally appeared on 28 May in BalkanInsight
These days a complex of statues is about to be finished in one of Skopje’s parks. One of the figures there depicts a naked young man holding a torch, and rattling his broken chains. It is no one else but the titan Prometheus, who in the rather free interpretation of ancient mythology by his author Tome Adžievski “is a god who created humans”. The problem that unnamed “women’s organisations” allegedly had with all this is not the lack of basic knowledge by the author, or the deplorable aesthetics of the statue, but rather the fact that Prometheus was depicted naked, making it impossible for them to sit in the park, where the statue is located. The local authorities wasted no time in reacting to citizens’ requests and quickly had the artist design a pair of oversized, loosely hanging knickers. The author unsurprisingly complied.
This is not an invented fairy-tale, but part of the day-to-day reality of populist decision making. It is a parable on how decisions are made in the name of “the people” by a self-styled elite with only one clear item on the agenda – profit, be it political, or, even better, pecuniary. After all, the underwear has to be paid for, so there is a bit of something in it for everybody. Politicians look good and citizens don’t have to face the titan’s private parts. Social peace is restored.
The rise of populism has put players in the Balkan societies in a corner. It seems that persons or groups striving for relevance find it difficult to react to a movement that is determined by revolutionary hysteria and by the almost pathological need to show that it is right. By its exclusivist arrogance, such a movement strives to put anyone who is not part of it in the stocks. The aim is a closed, controlled and steered society, in which “the people’s will” is defined by those pulling the strings.
In the logic of action and reaction, so far the answer to hysteria is rage. The articulation of this rage though is part of the problem. In the post-YU universe, this articulates within a simple logical system: if the populist discourse is national(ist)-religious, then the counter-discourse is leftist-post-communist, feeding on the vocabulary, symbolic heritage and, most important, gestures of the disappeared Yugoslavia. Hence, the system remains hermetically closed, steaming away in its same, old sauce, recycling particles of discourse and conflict, but not producing anything new. What happens in such a hermetically closed situation is decadence, decay, the loss of coordinates, the loss of a reference system – in other words: eternal transition, a prolongation of the agony of the 1990s and 2000s ad infinitum.
Macedonia, being a late-comer in so many aspects of building a society has never had an organised independent cultural scene until now. In an attempt to make themselves noticed, a good dozen organisations recently formed a cooperation platform. So far, so good. But when listening to the speeches and reading the manifesto, I could not help getting this feeling of déja vu. The same wooden language that has survived from the times of partisan films and that is heard all over the Balkans from self-styled progressives. Nothing but verbal agony.
The reason, why this platform and others like it should succeed is not because they have a right to be noticed by those in power. Those will do their best to ignore them. The need to succeed derives from the fact that these organisations exist, from the fact that they work, that they engage. Everything else is playing within the closed system.
Action in the context of a closing society needs to create a new discourse, an open debate about this very society. How can it achieve that? Largely by creative hedonist subversion. And by that I don’t mean the post-Gramscian type of boring and uninspired political subversion so uncreatively used by groups claiming to be the spearheads of urban insurgency. I am thinking more along the lines of Vaclav Havel. Actions aiming at creating meaning outside the parameters dictated by the dualist discourse of “us against them”; actions ignoring that discourse and treating it with indifference will succeed in the long run, because they do not offer the established dual power structures a platform to act.
The ridiculously overpriced plan for the renovation of a bridge in Skopje sparked some protest recently. The action that followed was to stick the equivalent of the price in makeshift 100 Euro banknotes to the existing bridge. Had it been just that – perfect. But no, the activists had to get in front of the cameras and explain, let themselves be filmed during the action. Why was this wrong, you may feel inclined to ask? The answer is very simple: it made it appear like an action of a small sectarian group; it delivered the arguments for being pushed into a political corner. What if passers-by would have discovered the prepped bridge in the morning alongside with piles of 100 Euro stickers waiting for them? It would have been intriguing, subversive, hedonist and creative. Like this, it was just another media event. The effect? Questionable. It is the act and the following debates that induce change, not the media appearances of actors. Especially not in a context, in which media ownership and editorial policies are part of the “us against them” system and will do everything to use any event for their purposes.
What I am pleading for here is a good dose of nonchalance. A society is not dual; it is a complex organism, which needs to be fed from different angles. The more, the better. Injecting doses of liberalism, libertarianism, individualism and hedonism into the closed-circuit machinery will make it first stutter and eventually adapt. But what this approach implies is the long-term vision of self-conscious individuals, who are capable and willing to sever the group ties and bonds that keep Balkan societies hostage to patronage and clientelism.
It takes people with relaxed views, with the serenity of those in the know that the eternal rivalry between two political contenders at the top of the government or state is blatantly irrelevant, that it does not matter which journalist or medium has decided to drop dignity like a pair of pants, that identity is something personal which cannot be defined nor denied by anyone else but its bearer, that winning the Eurovision contest is a commercial act rather than a national duty, that entire nations cannot be offended, whatever wannabe leaders may claim.
It takes creative minds, both artistic and intellectual, which act for the sakes of themselves, which seek legitimation of their own intentions and ideas, for the sakes of those intentions only, irrelevant of what relevant factors in today’s power setup might think.
It also takes courage. The courage to re-claim social space from the mainstream of narrow-mindedness, which has drowned Balkan societies for a while now, the mainstream reeking of periphery, of thuggish half-wits and half-legality, vibrating to the soundtrack of transition scum idolatry – turbo-folk.
But courage without nonchalance is boring. Creativity comes from the ability to take a step back, to question only everybody and everything else, including one self every day. Dull are those who have ready-made answers, for theirs the future will not be. That is my imaginary Yoda’s mantra. In brief: I am delighted and excited by Pussy Riot, while Che Guevara puts me to sleep. A bored, dull and dreamless state.
Oh, and speaking of role models, my dear friends, especially in Macedonia: please give up the periphery reflex. Yugoslavia is dead. Belgrade is not the centre of the universe anymore, but an exorbitantly ordinary city with its own cultural dilemmas and economic problems, with its own elites with totalitarian reflexes and with its own mafia, with a civil society seeking its own answers and a media landscape that is less than rosy. Leave it be. It is time to create your own discourses. The power structures have rightly declared the transition as ended by putting their unmistakable mark on Skopje’s map. It is time to enrich that landscape.