Today’s sneak preview: a short talk on decomposing legitimacy in the Balkans and elsewhere

Photo on 02-06-2017 at 09.15In keeping with the tradition of making spoken full texts available, this is the chat I will be giving this afternoon at this nice conference with our friends in Regensburg. If you have not been able to attend you can use it for vicarious enjoyment, and if you are here you can read along with me to achieve an effect of collective effervescence.

Don’t mourn, Balkanise! What the Post-Democratic West Can Learn from the Balkans

To begin, an apology. This title has already been used, as the title of a book of essays by Andrej Grubačić. It had fallen out of my memory, but maybe it is a sign that a good idea can never be used only once.

I’ll just put this slide with nice quotations on it up here so that you can have something to look at or to distract you if I get boring.


  • „Europeans accept democracy because they no longer believe in politics“ (M Mazower 404)
  • „The reason why fascisms come into being is the political and social failure of liberal democracy“ (Thierry Maulnier, in H. Rogger and E. Weber 1965:8)
  • “The sane man does not know that everything is possible.” (P K Dick, 1964)

As the surprising political events of the past year or so, have unfolded, we have had the opportunity to become familiar with an already fairly fixed set of diagnoses. There is a strong tendency to view events like the election of Trump and the passage of the Brexit referendum as rebellions, and to locate these rebellions in particular social spaces: older citizens, the rural population, communities that have suffered from deindustrialisation and long-term structural unemployment. The basic problems leafing to this rebellion have also been identified: illegitimate institutions. Self-interested parties. Policy that fails to serve public interest. Alienation.

We have faced these sorts of problems before. In his classic history of 20th century Europe, Dark Continent,  the historian Mark Mazower identified the emergent and unstable democracies of post-WW1 Europe as formalistic, elite-dominated, disproportionately concentrated on free trade and formal legality, and fatally unconcerned with social, human and emotional needs, which opened a large space into which totalitarian movements, such as fascism and Soviet communism, were only too happy to step. The invitation to draw parallels with contemporary democracies in his argument is only too obvious, but it seems as though it is only recently that a large number of analysts have felt inclined to take up this invitation.

But I might suggest that it has carried some resonance for a little bit longer for people who are engaged with the Balkans. The people who are at this meeting will not need another overview of the ways in which that part of the world has been witnessing inadequate, unresponsive, monopolistic political structures, and will already know about various ways in which fascist movements from earlier periods are being revived in various places. The people here also know about the creativity and vitality of social movements that have emerged in response, about their humour and about ways in which they have attempted to reconstruct the terms of political contestation. We might be able to say this: people in the Balkans face the same basic problem as people in the rest of the world. These problems may be more readily apparent in the Balkans, as the period of democratic development has been shorter and less successful, and there exists less superstructure to cover it over.

It has already become commonplace to observe a decline in the resonance of the concept of democracy on a global level. This has already been noticeable for a long time in some post-socialist states, in particular states in the Balkans where changes in regime type were not universally welcomed and were in many cases were followed by periods of violence. If we wanted to put this in terms of political theory we might say that democracy in the Balkans began to suffer early on from a deficit of «output legitimacy» — legitimacy based on  public assessment of the relevance and quality of the performance of institutions (Weiler 2012) – as political changes tended overall to make people’s life conditions worse rather than better. Already in 1994, Mikloš Biro was presenting results of surveys from Serbia on democracy and the concepts people associated with it: promiscuity, internationalism, anarchy, the names of (un)popular political opponents, „worthless freedom, and you don’t have anything to eat.“ Early on it was possible to observe that unwelcome social and economic conditions had an effect on the perceived legitimacy of political structures. The recent survey results indicating declining faith in democracy among young people on a global level tend to conform this early finding. It has become a commonplace that trust in representative political institutions – parties, parliaments, public officials – is declining overall. We might also note that a good portion of this trust is transferred onto prepolitical institutions, in particular military and religious authorities. The decline of trust is also, it has become painfully obvious, accompanied by an amplified resonance of appeals to fear: racism, nativism, exclusivism of all kinds.

So what have been the elements that have contributed to the set of outcomes that have had such a visible effect on „output legitimacy“?

  • Political Parties: self interest over public interest, tendency to attempt to establish monopolies, ideological and political emptiness, declining credibility and support. The establishment and entrenchment of pa permanent, parasitic political class, the fate of whose members is only loosely tied to election results. In Macedonia an effort to establish a permanent monopoly has failed, but elsewhere it is succeeding, and very clearly so in Serbia. To the degree that monopolies or oligopolies of this type succeed, they produce an overall erosion of accountability, with entrenched party leaders strongly inclined to the view the public as an annoyance that emerges to interfere with their business from time to time.
  • Elites: Ideal versions of the role of elites see them as educating and leading the public. We have strong evidence indiating what happens when elites fail to lead, and hide and manipulate instead. The present is marked by a yawning absence of communication between elites and the public. An earlier iteration of this phenomenon was described by Hannah Arendt: “history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots” (1966:333). In the current iteration what we notice most is  displacement of communication with identity-based ideology structured around resentment and provocation (the Mitrovica train). The tendency of elites to take refuge in ethnic slogans and provocations is not coincidental, in post-conflict societies in particular.

To present it as a causal diagram:

Metastasis of a particular interpretation of history –> Transformation of history into fetish –>  Fear of evidence and enquiry –> Systematic violation of right to truth –> Acceptance and expectations that the public will protect elites from questioning, and elites will protect the public from truth. Effect: successful promotion of fear of truth produces a mechanism of hegemony.

  • Classes: If we want to say that the legitimacy of democracies was strongest in the period between the end of WW2 and the introduction of austerity, we might be able to suggest that what contributed to this legitimacy was the perception that the system was capable o providing decent living conditions to members of all socioeconomic classes, of coopting the threat of working class rebellion by integrating labour into the capitalist economic system, and of offering a promise of social mobility and integration to grous that had been excluded. An analogous argument could be made for state socialist systems in the Balkans during the period when they were functioning well (Bockman, Unkovski). We all know about the dominant changes in the capitalist system that have tended to expand over the past thirty years: precarity, wage pressure, necessity of multiple employment, wage inequality, structural employment. All of the problems that are recognisably a part of the global capitalist economy are experience more intensely on the peripheries of the capitalist economy. They are compounded by a set of economic policies that have been encouraged by outside actors including the EU, in particular the deand for privatisation of publicly held manufacturers and employers. A consequence has been the ossification of class divisions that had for a period been relatively open and flexible. The consequences of this for the functioning of democracy are reflected on the level of identity: people who are not encouraged to recognise one another are not likely to recognise one another as members of a shared community, and more likely to regard one another as competitors or opponents.
  • „Stabilitocracy“: a basic lack of interest by global influential political and economic actors in democracy and legitimacy. I will not get into an extensive discussion of «stabilitocracy» because I have a feeling that Florian may be talking about that. But I will point out a parallel between the kind o affirmation from outside that «stabilitocracy» promotes and what has come to be referred to since the emergence of figures like Farage, Le Pen, and Trump as «normalisation.» To paraphrase an old sogan of European oversight in Kosovo, this is a process of putting status before standards, and it undermines our institutions and erases the content of our political discourse. To refer to the slogan of a European political party currently facing an election challenge, we become «strong and stable» and empty, like a Chernobyl cooling tower.

If we detail all of these factors, it is not difficult to recognise parallels with the sorts of conditions that have led to the extremist and populist movements in other (less marginal) parts of the world that have gained everybody’s attention, in particular over the past year or so. Fundamentally the worst parts of it involve decay of legitimacy: a strong and growing feeling of alienation among people who feel that the dominant arrangement of political and economic power does not meet their needs, fails to serve their interests, damages their life chances, concentrates power in nondemocratic ways, engages in practices of systematic exclusion, and fails to speak to their concerns.

One of the most visible responses in the Balkans is embodied in an ongoing withdrawal from the formal institutions of politics, and a search for  alternate paths to legitimacy. This year’s presidential ections in Serbia were notable for the persnalised politics of the person who won, with the rest of the field distinguished by the absence of significant support for ANY party – the second place finisher was a non-party figure, the third-place finisher was a satirical candidate, and political party nominees ran far behind. In Croatia_s municipal elections there continued a visible shift of support from the established political parties toward local and class-based movements in. In Macedonia, the recent change in party control has been viewed as a shift away from authoritarian hijacking of demcracy, but is worth noting that the change in party control was initiated by direct democractic activity – the winning parties relied and took their guidance from citizen protests, to which they were secondary. And, of course, in Bosnia and Hercegovia, the plenum movement attempted (and briefly succeeded) in generating a channel for expression of citizen interest that circumvented party, state and substate institutions.

Concretely, what have been the responses to permanent crises of legitimacy in the Balkans?

  • The public has maintained its presence, and combined compulsory obedience with regular and strategic disobedience. (Serbia: the same people who voted for SNS came forward the same week to protest against it. There is no contradiction between these two manifestations of behaviour – in both cases peope were acting to protect a portion of the complex of interests in their lives).
  • People have not abandoned their intelligence and humour. Again an example from Serbia: a satirical candidate took third place in this year’s presidential election – behind the official authoritarian candidate and the conventional liberal candidate, but ahead of all of the candidiates building a platform on the basis of identity, chauvinism, and resentment.
  • People are circumventing systems that do not work. They are compelling parties to be subordinate to movements under the threat of irrelevance. In Macedonia, the party that will now lead the government was itself led to a more democratic position by protest forces that revealed the abuses to which it responded. In Croatia, emergent political movements at the local level (8% for «Zagreb je naš») are challenging the claims of political parties to exclusivity of representation.
  • People are defying demands that they be divided in traditionally populist ways, and expressing solidarity instead. This is especially visible in popular responses to crisis, as in the 2014 floods in Bosnia-Hercegovina, where citizens found means to bring assistance directly to people affected, avoiding state and local government structures that (particularly in Republika Srpska) divided territories and human beings into ethnonational categories in ways that the rising water did not.
  • Broadly, people are targeting the sources of their disempowerment.

Now, of course, these things are not all of the things that people are doing. I could also assemble a pessimistic story to tell, that would combine stories of people giving up, withdrawing, pursuing paths to emigration, buying into the most caricatured renditions of the ideologies that they have been served from the period of violent conflict onward. We can tell stories like this outside of the Balkans as well.

I would simply draw some parallels and make some distinctions with regard to ways in which people who do not want to go along with the authoritarianism that is emerging are responding in different parts of the world. The most important parallel is that the movements that seem to gain traction are ones that do not ignore the reasons that people have become dissatisfied with and alienated from a system that has, for concrete and understandable reasons, lost a good portion of its appeal. The most obvious difference is the degree to which, so far, in sites like the US and UK resistance has been based in legal and administrative institutions rather than outside of them (illustrations from the US are especially helpful: the development of endruns around monopolies of information began with employees of the National Park Service, and opposition to the recent decision to abandon the global climate change accords is being resisted by state and local governments). This is of course a reflection of a history in which the strength of institutions has, in multiple instances, showed itself to be capable of defending public interest against efforts to create a monopoly of power or to undo widely shared values.

In contrast, the frequently repeated observation that «democracy is all about procedure» is likely to apply in environments where institutions are well established and relatively strong. It applies less well in environments where (for example) the election of a presiding officer by a majority of the members of parliament can be prevented by means of an attack by armed thugs. In cases like that the location of democracy is less in the institutions and more in the streets, the contradictions and failures of democracy are more readily apparent, and the spirit of democracy is tangible.