A sneak preview: “Revisiting postsocialist teleology”

A little text for our friends in Novi Sad tomorrow. Mind you, I still have to make the slides.

For the conference: “Postsocialism: Hybridity, continuity and change”

Since 1989, discussion of the political future of Europe has been marked by a strong discourse of inevitability. This is an especially interesting time to revisit these discourses of inevitability, given recent events that are certain to have consequences for the identity and political direction of Europe, as well as for the role of the countries of this region in the context of Europe.

As it is not the topic of this discussion, it may not be appropriate to say much about the recent referendum in the UK and its surprising outcome. It might be enough to observe that it comes together with a whole set of indications that show us that both the political project of building of a Europe with a particular democratic and liberal character, as well as the states involved in that project, are fundamentally contested by meaningful parts of the population. These publics come both from the right and left of the political spectrum, and what unites them is a sense that people are neither served nor represented, and they are confronted with a system that falls short on measures of legitimacy from several points of view. In another generation we might have described this using terms like “alienation,” but there is more at stake here. The historian Mark Mazower, in seeking to explain the rise of totalitarian movements in the first half of the 20th century, noted that they were experienced in weak parliamentary states that failed to meet human needs: both material needs and needs on the level of meaning.


We can trace the development of “postsocialist” discourse to the beginning of the dismantling of state-socialist regimes in 1989. The dominant expectation at the time was that new regimes would develop into democratic states that would quickly integrate into a Europe that was increasingly multilateral and democratic, and where market economies were balanced by a strong commitment to the maintenance of social welfare and policies of equality.

It might be useful to point out some characteristic elements of this discourse:

–triumphalism and the sense that the Cold War had been “won.” This triumphalism was to a certain degree translated into policy as an approach to the development of states dominated by, at the maximal level, the assumption that major characteristics of emergent systems could be dictated, and at the minimal level, a general orientation of paternalism directed toward states and societies undergoing major structural change.

–the development of a mostly unelaborated doctrine of inevitability and a discourse of history which, to the degree that was elaborated at all, was elaborated by ideologists masquerading as scholars: Francis Fukuyama recasting Marx’s adaptation of Hegel (in a way reflective of what Daniel Bell had tried to do for a different purpose in an earlier generation) on the optimistic side, and Samuel Huntington developing a sophisticated repackaging of 19th century ethnic stereotypes on the pessimistic side.

–the simultaneity of the emergence of a political moment that provided an opportunity for the transformation of one set of states with the entrenchment of a consensus around neoliberalism in another set of states. It is meaningful that in countries like the US and UK, parties traditionally associated with the centre-left abandoned commitments to labour, redistributive policies, and social welfare, and that this was reflected in political realignments in other states, including France and Sweden.

–Monitoring, both on the part of international and state agencies and on the part of various institutions that communicate with the public.

Without going into tremendous detail, it is no great leap to say that this combination of factors gave a particular shape to the process of “transition.” It may be worth noting that the violent and contested character of political change in Southeast Europe had an intensifying effect, particularly on the paternalistic character of relations between the centre and periphery and on the asymmetrical character of power relations between established and emergent states. In a sense this could mean that we can say that all of the characteristics of the situation I have just outlined are true, but even truer for Southeast Europe.

So how has the process gone? There is more than enough space for an assessment, considering that we are talking about a series of changes that can plausibly be said to date back to 1989 (27 years ago), and for Southeast Europe maybe more plausibly to 2000 (16 years ago).


On balance it seems as though many of the dominant assumptions of “postsocialist” discourse have been shattered. The principal assumption – that the process would result in stable democratic states moving along an ever-intensifying path of integration with a secure democratic environment – seems especially to have been shattered.  For years it has been possible to speak of authoritarian systems or continuing violence and discrimination as “remnants,” as constituting some kind of “exception” or an unusual or extraordinary condition. When the number of “exceptions” is very large, it is not a deviation or an aberration but a dominant trend.

In states of Southeast Europe (visibly in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina) regimes with weak democratic legitimacy incline increasingly toward authoritarianism and are strongly contested by their own citizens. Similar moves toward authoritarianism are visible in other post-accession states (Hungary, Poland), while the rise of far-right movements and the entrenchment of neoliberal approaches across the entire continent has undercut Europe’s commitment to social welfare and equality.

So how can we explain the elements of the failure of post-socialist teleology? It would be possible to carry the search for explanations in a wide variety of directions, including the very probable one that the initial assumptions and orientations standing behind the project were in fundamental ways distorted by ideology and triumphalism. Without meaning to exclude other factors, it might be useful to concentrate on two factors that go some distance to generating an explanation. One of them is (mostly) external to the states of the region and the other is (mostly) internal. These two explanations are:



1) There has been an ambiguous role played by external factors deriving from a basic  contradiction at the heart of the European political project and the coditionality associated with it. On the one hand,  international institutions have been engaged in  promoting political procedures and institutions that tend in a strongly democratic direction (parliamentary democracy, media freedom, independent judiciary, recognition of minority rights, gender equality). The values standing behind these projects stand firmly within the positive tradition of political development in Europe, are enshrined in political documents such as the EU Charter, and constitute the most attractive incentive for political «integration» of emerging states for activists at the social and political levels. Fundamentally they carry with them the promise that the shift from authoritarian to democratic practices can be made permanent.

At the same time, the same international institutions and the same requirements of conditionality promote a set of economic practices (austerity, marketisation, privatisation, the systematic opening of domestic markets to multinational ownership and intervention) tending in an undemocratic direction. Taken together these factors have the effect of concentrating power in small groups increasingly alienated from publics, of disempowering labour and discouraging the satisfaction of social needs, and of constructing hard barriers between social classes that become increasingly distant from one another. In states where, like in the states of the region, political and economic power are strongly associated with one another, they have the effect of emptying political discourses, narrowing the range of political choices, and undoing many of the institutional democratic changes accomplished by the previously discussed set of conditionalities. At worst they have the tendencies to transform state structures into cartels in which access to goods in both the public and private sectors become conditioned on association with a political party.

If we look at particular spheres like media, we are repeatedly confronted with direct evidence of the consequences of the contradiction between formal democratisation and material neoliberalisation, both in the sense that we are witness to ever-increasing levels of concentration of ownership and access and in the sense that public dialogue is constrained by the perceived necessity on the part of media owners of developing close relationships with political parties in positions of power. The futility of outside intervention to control these effects is well demonstrated in Nidžara Ahmetašević’s research on television in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and the forms of collusive relationships that are produced in this process are well demonstrated in Tomislav Maršić’s research on the generation of media-party nexuses in Croatia.

2) The second factor has to do with the role of internal factors embodied in the failure to address legacies emanating from large-scale abuses of power and violations of human rights. This is of course an area that has been heavily researched by now, particularly in Southeast Europe.

The research on this topic is reasonably diverse, but it is possible to draw out a few general points that we could identify as agreed findings.

Possibly the major factor explaining this strangely mixed situation is the high level of continuity among prominent political actors and in institutions that carry a high level of prominence and social responsibility (media, education, culture, religion).

If we want to identify reasons why this situation presents a barrier to the development of the sort of democracy that was envisioned at the time of the development of post-socialist teleology, we would of course have no difficulty generating a very long list. But I would concentrate on a single reason: the basic condition for the kind of openness of decisionmaking to broad segments of the public that is a characteristic goal of democracy is the existence of a well-informed and critical public. The perceived need to discourage discussion and control the ability of information that is likely to endanger the prestige of elites retaining a position of power acts as a direct barrier to the development of an informed public. In effect it reverberates through institutions, education and media in particular, producing consequences of enforced uniformity, restricted knowledge, ideological approaches to history, and fear.

Here again I would concentrate on media in the recent period. We have witnessed intensive campaigns on the part of media close to ruling parties to disqualify any number of real and potential sources of criticism, whether these are institutions or individuals. These include organisation for the promotion of human rights and recognition of civilian victims in Serbia and Croatia, organisations investigating corruption such as KRIK in Serbia (these have been publicly interpreted as agents of international powers seeking to destabilise governments), embarrassing informal organisations such as disorderly football team supporters in Croatia (who prominent officials have sought to associate not only with Yugoslavia, but also, bizarrely, with a long-extinct Yugoslav political association from the 1920s – possibly indicating that disorder at football matches acts only as a pretext for raising an entirely different set of concerns), and all of the people participating in political protests related to the illegal practice of political power in Macedonia (who are verbally associated with a private foundation that is no longer active in the region).

All of these examples will be familiar with the audience here, and there is probably not much need to go into detail about them. The elements that they tend to have in common are these: 1) there is a discourse of threat, which 2) is expressed in terms of identity and security, and which 3) derives from the expression of orientation or the effort to make information available. That is to say that there appears to be a direct line that can be drawn between fear of historical legacies and the demonization of broad sectors of the public. Claims related to recognition of historical legacies and demands for justice do often take a moralistic form, but here we can see that they are also productive of patterns that tend to stand in the way of the development of an engaged and critical public sphere.


It might be possible to close with a final observation: we noted in the beginning of this presentation that a lot of the forces behind the development of post-socialist were ideological in form, and raised claims that had to do with both the superiority and the inevitability of a particular combination of institutional political pluralism and economic liberalism. We might add that many of the elements of democracy raised in this discourse are not characteristic of actually existing democracy as practiced in established democratic states. It might be possible to argue that they represent an idealised form of political goals that had not been realised in the states where they were created, and took on the form of experimental projects in some states where they were applied. This was possibly done because of the strength of an assumption – which turned out, unsurprisingly, to be false – that actors in the target states represented a kind of blank canvas and would not be conscious of very concrete local goals that could be placed ahead of abstract ideological goals. In retrospect it should probably not be surprising that actors in influential institutions were doing something that actors always do in parliamentary democracy, which is channelling the pursuit of particular and private interests through public institutions.

Are there lessons in this experience? There probably are, but it is hard to escape the feeling that many of them are obvious.