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.




Concluding session of a seminar

baltazar1I made up some notes for what to tell students at the last meeting of my MA seminar, “Politics of Southeast Europe Since 1990.” And I thought you might indulge me sharing them.



In this final session I am supposed to go over some of the things we have tried to do in here. So what did we try to do in this seminar?

Formally, we said we would do this (from the syllabus):

Course objectives:
By the end of the course, students will have gained knowledge and understanding allowing them to:

  1.        Evaluate policies both in the region and directed toward the region of Southeast Europe
  2.        Analyse contemporary issues and controversies involving Southeast Europe
  3.        Apply theoretical models from social science to understanding developments in Southeast Europe
  4.        Address scholarly controversies involving the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s, the regimes that participated in them, their causes and consequences

Along the way, it is also expected that students will develop their skills in working with academic literature, in developing critical assessments of research, and in organising and presenting their work in an engaging manner.

This is perhaps a bit overly narrow. I think we did all of these things. We explored policies and we evaluated them, we tried to look at facts and issues using a variety of perspectives and methodologies, we got into some of the academic debates.

But maybe I can say a bit more. The selection of readings (especially for those of you who went beyond the required ones and into the recommended list) was meant to open horizons. In particular it was meant to shift away from a conventionally political approach to political issues. I have tried to develop and include background from most of the social sciences.

The purpose of this is not merely formalistic. There are plenty of formalistic observers of different types of contemporary politics in the world. We could probably say that the whole field of political analysis is becoming more formalistic and less engaged, because of a whole variety of different interests and pressures. Think about most of the media commentary you hear about ongoing events, if you are a close follower of media. You are likely to have recognised some of the following habits:

  • A tendency to take some contested categories (“democracy” or “Europe”) as given and not in need of analysis or discussion
  • A tendency to assume benign intentions and to overlook unintended effects
  • A tendency to concentrate attention on a small number of people occupying the top ranks of political institutions
  • A tendency to accept the “The” unquestioningly (“the” Serbs, Croats, etc)
  • Surreptitious Fukuyamaism in the unconscious promotion of a deeply ideologised master narrative of history

So why is this a problem? Consider this: one of the things that as specialists we are often asked to do (though probably we should not be asked) is to make predictions. And most of the predictions that the specialists make in response to this type of request turn out to be wrong. Why  are we wrong so often? Part of it may simply have to do with the nature of the question – nobody can predict the future. But part of it may have to do with the way that answers are assembled. Too narrow (and narrowly concentrated) a range of sources means answers that tend toward an assumption that conditions will remain the same.

Wars aren’t the only things the experts didn’t predict. They are pretty bad at predicting democracy as well (see 2014 Bosnian protests and plenums).

The anthropologist Ivan Colovic liked to quote a line from the science fiction writer Philip K Dick: “The sane man does not know that everything is possible.” He was using it to try to explain the behaviour of sociopaths during the period of violence in the 1990s in ex-Yugoslavia. Only they knew what could happen to what looked like peaceful and relatively prosperous communities (partly because they made it happen). To the degree that they were insane, this gave them insight and an advantage over other people. The sentence from Philip Dick comes, by the way, from an essay about psychedelic drugs written in 1964. Short of becoming criminals ourselves, how do we get access to this kind of advantage? The goal is not some kind of power, but insight above and beyond what is available to your standard media/party/thinktank “specialist.”

Basically it is by having good depth vision and peripheral vision, This takes engagement and it takes time. It means having enough familiarity with the environment you are in to be able to sense possible resonances, have an idea what is likely to take root or not. And it means looking broadly enough so that you have an idea about this political top layer that everyone else concentrates on: if it is representative, what is it representing? Where does this thing it is representing originate from, and what is it competing with? What is changing, and how quickly, and what is changing more quickly or slowly than it is? What do the anthropologists (or anyone else engaged with a different part of public life) know that the politicians don’t know? Have a sense of these things and you have insight that is better than your favourite paper’s editorial page.

So at this point I am supposed to offer conclusions, something that we have demonstrated during this term or some kind of parting advice. I didn’t have a big polemical point to prove so I am reasonably sure that I did not prove one. I hope I might have demonstrated some patterns that could be useful  to you as you continue to develop your thinking. What I hope some of these would be:


  • Look below the surface. The important stuff is almost never happening among the people at the top layer of politics. If it is happening in the state it is happening at the third or fourth level of official life. Most of the public and most of the experts will not have much sense of it.
  • Look for diversity. If you think that “the” Freedonians or Ruritanians are like this or that, you will be proved wrong by every social or political change.  Have a sense of the kind of competitions going on in the social environment (of which whoever is exercising power at the moment represents a fraction, temporarily).
  • Look into the past. Not to see how some ancient factor fixed everything into a particular place forever, but to see how some recent and ongoing changes have created new arrangements, new insecurities, new tensions, new fears, new conflicts. The answer to the question of why things are the way they are today is probably not in what some press spokesperson said yesterday or some half-fictional emperor did a thousand years ago, but in things that actually affect the way people live.
  • Look at how people live. It might not look the same as the way people are represented.
  • Look at the research, the closer the site of production of the research to the place being described the better. It can provide ways of answering questions that a lot of outside observers will not even think to ask (i.e., rather than declaring “the x’s are all nationalist” ask “what are the forces contributing to support for nationalist movements”).


Having completed a course in this field and probably the degree here, there is a good likelihood that many or most of you will before too long find yourselves in the position of the people whose answers to the questions people ask about the region you have been reading as study material. With any luck you know which have been the good ones and which ones less good. Try to be more like the good ones.