Civil Society Or Participatory Society

Albert: To start, can you tell us something about the context of organizing in the Balkans?

Grubacic: There is a term flooding the progressive press all around the Balkans, lurking like a phantom over the editor’s desk. It is present in all “critical analyses” and has become  unavoidable in the discourse of the so-called non-government organizations. “Civil society” is the term. It just refers to non-governmental elements presumably working on behalf of the social good. It seems that the term has gone beyond civility and become royalty in political journalism in the Balkans.

In the West, too, it is virtually impossible to get away from this term. You encounter it even where you least expect. “Why wouldn’t we ally Davos and Porto Alegre?”- asked Philip Watts, Shell President, in a serious tone of voice at the gathering of the World Economic Forum in New York. The very fact that at last year’s Porto Alegre Forum there were three French candidates for president, eight government members with Prime Minister Jospain, 200 mayors of major world cities, speaks of the fact that global resistance to neoliberalism has become a “planetary reality”. However, it also warns of probably the greatest challenge so far posed to the subversiveness of the movement itself: in the name of the “civil society”.

But you ask about the Balkans. Here the comedy of “listening and repenting”, of civil society rhetoric and practice, are at full swing. What is it all about?

The capitalist discourse is changing its bullying approach (denying it out loud), in a metamorphosis which leaves one breathless. The rhetorical fireworks include the phrases “mutual agreement”, “transparency”, “ethics” and – my favourite – “closeness”. In order to have the current system appear in the new velvety outfit, it requires partners – those denying it. Therein begins the comedy of civil society, the noise and the well tempered rage, the new mythology of the “citizen-mate” which in the strategy of he authorities has the aim of simply integrating the deniers.

Albert: Can you give some examples?

Such “partnership for social peace”, in the Balkans, stands in the service of maintaining the ‘social monologue’. Are you criticizing the neoliberal economic model of  Serbian Ministers? You will be asked to state your point of view.  Are you surprised at the fact of Romania signing of the neocolonial agreement with  the USA? The Minister of the Defence will welcome you and listen to you carefully. Are you worried because of the poverty in Croatia? Come to the conference on “reduction of poverty” organized by the Government.

Renewing the system by criticizing it, readiness to co-opt those denying it, paternalism in the guise of participation – all these aspects of social control are as old as the system itself.

According to the writing of Luc Boltansky, the sociologist, the denial which capitalism was faced with in the seventies, has brought about the creation of a “new spirit of capitalism aimed at appeasing critique by acknowledging its appropriateness, or to simply avoid it by not even responding to it.”

Social control by way of civil society offers an interaction of different modes of domination. Authorities can direct fictitious conflicts in which they let the artificial opponents of their own choice specify social difficulties that they then together, through dialogues – do not solve, or even do partly solve — but at no serious loss for the system.
When the system is in question, of course, the elites oppose the opposition and advocate change only in a limited manner that will not endanger the system. From this stems the leaning of “civil society” towards different variants of reformist thought that tolerates the denial of some of the aspects of the system, but does not tolerate denying the principle of the system’s existence. In other words, “civil society” strives to change the rules of the game a bit here and there, but due to its being integrated, keeps participating in the game submissively.

Albert: So you are implying that going beyond civil society and reformist organizing that assumes system maintainence, is one thing that needs to happen. What do you have in mind for that?

Grubacic: The concept of civil society ought to be abandoned for the sake of the vision of another society that does not rest on class, religious, or ethnic discrimination. We need a participatory society committed to authentic “politics from  below.”

In order to get closer to such a society, it is necessary to “step out of the game”, abandon the system, renounce abstract “social-schmertz” and opt for “social conflict”, for breaking up with traditional social-political communication and organization. Such a “conflict” would imply getting beyond endless reliance on typical political parties, hierarchical trade unions, bureaucratized non-governmental organizations, and following a path towards new models of association.

It is time, here in the Balkans, for a “horizontal social dialogue.” Every vertical social dialogue that history has shown us has turned into a monologue in which workers first “stay without a say, and then without a pay.”

In contrast we need to seek a horizontal social dialogue conducted among all participants in the social-economic processes – all workers, including those who are going to lose their jobs, unemployed workers who have already lost them, refugees and “displaced persons” who have nothing to lose, Romas who have never had anything, students who cannot afford to go to the university, farmers, social movement activists, women, and many more.

Albert: Where does this horizontal dialogue go?

Grubacic: It could immediately encompass the “minimum common plan”, a social right that would include: request for minimum income, refutation of privatization as a model, and developing strategies subordinating profits to preserving non- renewable resources and the real environment, but it could also seek longer term goals for a whole new economy. Instead of advoating a productivistic cult of privatization, a horizontal dialogue would likely lead toward advocating solidarity and participatory economic relations, including a different transition which emphasizes collective initiative and real democracy, and which, in its calculations, takes into account the price of the suffering and dignity and everything else more precious than profits.

Albert: You say you seek democracy, real democracy. What do you have in mind?

Grubacic: I think that for the Balkans it is the perfect time for social movements to try to re-invent – even beyond democracy — self management, or participatory management, as I prefer to call it. The ‘Yugoslav experience’ shouldnt be a discouragement here. In Yugoslavia there was no private ownership of productive assets, true, but there was a market system which dramatically limited economic options and a corporate division of labor that put a ruling coordinator class above workers in power and income. Those were the roots of our economic evil.

So, we havent had, in actual reality– in so called socialist Yugoslavia — real self-management, but only a rhetorical reference to it. We had a phenomenon that Djilas had called a ‘New Class’ in the polity, which is true enough for the state, but to get beyond Djilas who was identifying only to a political bureacuracy, we need to see that we also had a ruling coordinator class arising from our economys structure. There cannot be participatory management in a situation where the economy uses markets and corporate divisions of labor, whatever the state may look like, bureaucratic or not.

Albert: Do you think putting forward an economic vision that advocates participatory planning to replace markets, and balanced job complexes to replace the corporate division of labor, and that favors what I guess you might might call participatory management to replace authoritarian decision making, could be beneficial in the Balkans?

Grubacic: The prospect for that kind of model, the one we call participatory economics, in today’s Balkans is great. An anti-authoritarian, left liberterian economic system that accomplishes economic activity to meet needs and fulfill potentials while propelling solidarity, diversity, equity, and participatory management, with positive implications as well for other parts of life and society’s key domains such as polity and kinship and culture, gives us a promise of a true classlessness and a powerfull alternative both to the neoliberal models now favored in the Balkans, and to the authoritarian systems I like to call coordinator economies that previously existed in this part of Eastern Europe, including in my own Yugoslavia.

You are right that I would not use the term self-management in the Balkans. This is because I think that a fight over labels is a waste of time. We have to be more tactical than to cloud our meaning by misleading labels. If I speak about socialism and self management in Post Yugoslavia, people will look at me like I am a supporter of Tito or a member of Milosevic’s “socialist” party. They won’t hear anything beyond that wrong association. I dont think that we have time for that kind of confusion. It hurts communication as much as if I were to try to speak to folks in Belgrade in Japanese, In fact, it is worse.

The Balkans, or the greatest part of this region, in any event, is far and away the poorest part of Europe. The most frequent word here is strike. And I don’t think that we have a right to waste time in endless confused discussions about what class is a real revolutionary agent, or about what socialism really stands for. I am happy saying I am for participatory management, meaning just what you mean by self management, to communicate my comittments in a way that can be heard without bias. And I am happy saying I am for arecon rather than for soialism, for the same reason. Being for socialism here means to people that you are for oppression. It would not open the door to horizontal dialogue. But saying you are for a new type of economy, and describing its features, may help open that door.

Albert: But would people in the Balkans relate to the claim that market socialism was really market coordinatorism and that for that reason it doesn’t demonstrate that there is no better future beyond capitalism?

Grubacic: I dont think that there is widespread insight of this sort, at least not yet. But there is no impediment that prevents it. And at least some activists, and activist scholars, are trying to convey this claim. I would like to mention one network in particular, called “DSM”, based in my country, which is a coalition of anti authoritarian collectives, and which is trying to figure out a good way to incorporate the idea of balanced job complexes inside of the nascent social movements here, and to find a good way of politically communicating – using “new lenguage” that doesn’t confuse people — and exploring the new ways of doing politics. There is, also, a very good initiative coming from Slovenia, where activist scholars from the entire Balkans are trying to establish an Institute for the Research of the Global Movement. I think that this project is indeed very important.

Albert: Do you think people would find the idea of balanced job complexes a corrective to what they have known in workplaces — or would they see it as an ultra left excess that would have horrible implications?

Grubacic: I spend a lot of time talking to workers, inside and outside of the state controlled Unions. My strong impression is that they are very much in favor of this participatory model, as soon as they hear about it, and often really implicitly on their own. The same holds for grass roots activists. And, as far as my discussions about parecon as a new model of economic organization, people seem very enthustiastic. Of course, there are also people who see this as an “ultra left excess” or just the old ways in disguise. For example, I have been involved in a public debate recently  with one of the authors of the neoliberal reforms in my country. The guy was screaming “neocommunism!”, “neocommunism!” all the way through this debate. That is what he is being payed to do. But I dont think that this new class of intellectual comissars in the Balkan countryies should be our audience, and in contrast working people are very receptive.

Balanced job complexes, as far as I understand the idea, means a situation where each job is a mix of tasks and responsibilities, such that the overall quality of life and especially the overall empowerment effects of the work are comparable for all.  It is, in my opinion, very hard to disagree with a vision of society that gets rid of a hierarchy between managers and workers, lawyers and assembly line workers. How can one oppse keeping the functions, but having them fairly shared?

Among working people and activists working for social justice, I encounter overwhelmingly positive reactions. A vision of participatory society where each person’s mix of tasks and responsibilities accords with their abilities and also conveys a fair share of rote and tedious and interesting and empowering conditions and responsibilities, seems to people precisely in tune with their hopes. And so does participatory management — people having a proportionate say in the decisions that affect their lives.

Albert: What about remunerating effort and sacrifice only? Do you think people would fear that doing this would reduce their prospects for riches or disrupt production, or do you think they would anticipate that remunerating only effort and sacrifice would enhance justice and their incomes as well?

Grubacic: The feedback I have gotten has been very interesting. Yes, for many leftist economists – I remember my debate with one very fine old man, and a great economist, Branko Horvat – rewarding only the effort and sacrifice that people expend in their work is very controversial. But I fail to see, I have to admit, why is it so difficult for some anti-capitalists, even if they have suffered the harmful socialization of becoming famous economists,  to recognize the inherent injustice in getting more income by virtue of being more productive due to having better skills or greater inborn talent, or due to having better tools, not to mention due to having more power or owning more property.

Being entitled to more consumption only by virtue of giving more effort and enduring more sacrifice is morally appropriate and it also – it seems to me – provides proper incentives due to rewarding only what we can affect, and not what we can’t. It seems that people to whom I have been talking about these issues in my country- workers, peasents, movement activists
– are far more receptive to this idea then my colleagues who teach and even then ‘anti-capitalist’ intellectuals in general. But I guess that is no surprise.

Albert: Being from the U.S. we don’t encounter some of the trends of thought that exist in Europe. You are advocating participatory economics and related approaches for politics, gender, etc., for the Balkans. But I am wondering if other left approaches are finding more response there, even among the audiences you are working with — say, for example, ideas coming out of the work of Hardt and Negri and the people advocating such focuses as Empire and the Multitude. Are these views gaining support in the Balkans? Do you think they are making a positive contribuition? Do you see a relation to the pareconish ideas, or are the two viewpoints contrary?

Grubacic: Yes, Hardt and Negri’s book, which is very interesting, so the people who have understood it are telling me, is a popular read among lefty intellectuals. I am not sure if it is really gaining any support. It is very hard to communicate what they are trying to say: they cultivate a style that excludes the vast majority of potential readers, leaving most of even the highly educated in a state of confusion. Reading a book which is describing something called “Empire” which has supposedly superceded nation states, in a country occupied by U.S. milltary forces is, I suppose, a strange experience for most of the readers. But I don’t want to say that this book is not useful. I think it is of value to Marxist intellectuals in a country where “Marxism” was an official state ideology. For them, I suppose, it is challenging. But I doubt that it will have any significant influence in this part of Europe. I could be wrong, of course.

Traditional Marxist analyses of capitalist societies centered on the polarization beetwen two clasess and two alone: the capitalist class and the proletariat. Both pareconish analyses, and the one of Hardt and Negri, present a very different model, one which is meant to describe the class dynamic specific to modern times.

Hardt and Negri are recognizing the central dynamic in the emergence of an entity called ‘the multitude’. I am not sure anyone really knows what this means, but, broadly, the idea seems to be that the working class has lost its privileged position as the revolutionary agent, and, instead, now there is something called the multitude, which includes housewives, farmers, students, and so on. I am not sure what is new in that, but something that does seem different is to minimize differences among constituencies. We are all just going to be in the multitude. Differences between men and women, gays and straights, different types of workers and also workers and managers, and so on, all fade into the background and get much less attention than before, it seems.

Pareconish analyses present a model, at least regarding the economy, of a three way polarization, between the capitalist class, the working class, and the coordinator class. They also put into sharp focus differences having to do with gender, secuality, race, etc., identifying institutions that lead to these different positions and trying to understand different needs, agendas, etc. Pareconish efforts also seek, like Hardt’s and Negri’s, to have people become revolutionaries — and I guess pareconish activists could call those who arrive at such comittments a multitude, once it is that large insize, but they wouldn’t ignore that how different people become comitted depends on their position in society, nor would they minimize that some folks are on average less likely to move leftward than others, and may even have contrary interests. I would argue that the later analysis is more useful.

In fact, keying on the class part, with any leftist analyses which fails to comprehend the coordinator class as an actor that can take the lead in defining a new economy, there is a good chance of it leading to a dictatorship not of the proletariat but  of the coordinator class (of technocrats, government and party bureaucrats, professional ideologues, managers) – just as happened in Yugoslavia or the USSR.

The antagonisms which exist between the coordinator class seeking its own agenda and the working class seeking its own agenda cannot be wished away in the name of the “multitude”.  To get rid of the conflict one must have a movement that self-consciously forges new structures that eliminate class divisions rather than putting the more educated and powerful class from our society into a ruling position in the movement and then in tomorrow’s society. To be able to forge an alliance between those in the coordinator class who want real justice and the working class – to be able to build a strong movement for rela classlessness =- we need to recognize the antagonisms, not make believe they aren’t there. I think the pareconish view can help with that, both by identifying the problems, and by the classless vision and methods it offers. The approach based on the idea of the multitude, seems instead to move back in the old directions.

Albert: Finally, what about Anarchist trends in the Balkans? Are they moving toward economic aims and goals like those we have been discussing, or do they have other aims in mind? Do they have a political vision for the region and more broadly? Do you think the Balkan’s anarchist trends should find pareconish comittments positive, or that they should have strong criticisms of them?

Anarchism, as a political philosophy, is going through a veritable explosion in the Balkans in recent years. Anarchist, or anarchist-inspired collectives are growing everywhere; anarchist principles–autonomy, voluntary association, self-organization, mutual aid, direct democracy–have become the basis for organizing within a good number of the collectives in the Balkans.

But I would be very cautious with regards to the ‘political vision’ offered by anarchists in the Balkans. Serious reflection on vision remains a ‘blind spot’ of anarchism around here as, I guess, pretty much everywhere else. Hopefully that will change.

And that is one of the reasons why I think that anarchist trends in the Balkans should recognize  participatory economics as an anarchist economic vision which generates participation, classlesness and participatory management: the hallmark goals of anarchism. Parecon is in accord with all the most important themes of traditional anarchism (freedom, justice, solidarity, participation, equity), but contributes even more to what I like to refer to as “modern anarchism”, through its provision of specific positive economic institutions not advocated by traditional anarchists, such is balanced job complexes and participatory planning. What we anarchists need to do is add a political vision to go with it.


Leave a comment