2012 – Summer University

Mapping Neoliberalism and Its Countermovements in the Former Second World

(July 23-27, 2012, Budapest)


This conference had some pre-history. In July 2011, under the auspices of Budapest’s Central European University (CEU), a summer school took place. Its unwieldy title (“(Neo)liberalization of Socialism and the Crises of Capital”), stellar organizers (Mary Taylor, Csilla Kalocsai, and Judit Bodnar) and faculty (Johanna Bockman, David Harvey, and Ivan Szelenyi) attracted a group of young scholars interested in transcending the worn-out paradigms through which postsocialist societies are still interpreted in mass media, policy analysis, and academic research: communism v. democracy, transition to democracy, and the most idiotic of them all—“return to Europe.”  Once the participants arrived in Budapest, many of them turned out to be no mere detached, Weberian scholars but social movement activists in their own national contexts, whose critique of neoliberalism drew on their activist practice.

Inspired by the experience of mutual recognition, by the stakes of our conversation, and the rare opportunity to talk to other critically-minded scholars from a region whose cultural and intellectual interconnections have been largely severed, we decided to meet the following year, in late July 2012, once again in Budapest. The reunion was to be at the same time a narrower and more ambitious affair than last year’s. Narrower, because this time we lacked the institutional affiliations, the major funding, and the intellectual resources that made the last year’s summer school possible. More ambitious, because the conversation had already begun, the commonalities/ camaraderies had been established, and new allies from other postsocialist countries identified and invited. Overall, approximately 40 participants from 10 East European countries participated in the event. The dearth of funding was more than made up by the ingenuity and energy of the main organizers—Agnes Gagyi and Csaba Jelinek. And if the 2011 summer school was more exclusively focused on neoliberalism and the conversations about the social movements opposing it took place outside of the formal curriculum, the program of the 2012 gathering maintained a focus on both. Even though without official CEU participation, this time we also benefited from the sheer number of young East European scholars concentrated at that university, who would frequently drop in on our panels. With a few exceptions, most of the participants were PhD students or junior faculty. Of the disciplines represented, anthropology, sociology, and history accounted for probably 2/3 of the participants, but there were historians of literature, specialists in education and urban planning. That English was our lingua franca meant that many of us were either based in or had spent significant time at English-language universities.

The late-/post-socialist intellectuals & neoliberalism

Joining us via skype, Mary Taylor (City University of New York) opened the conference by putting conference participants on the same page by giving with a magesterial account of the 2011 summer school she helped organized. The panels then proceeded chronologically. Organized by Dan Cirjan and Piotr Wcislik, the first of them continued the work of last year’s summer school by identifying the origins of today’s neoliberal order in the late-socialist period and thus of defetishizing 1989 as a watershed. And if last year the focus was on the practices of the Soviet-bloc states, the three main presentations of this panel dealt with the attitudes of the late-socialist intelligentsia. Starting with Yulia Latynina’s oft-repeated ruminations on the (limited) capacity of ordinary people to choose their rulers, for example, Ilya Budraytskis (Institute of World History, RussianAcademy of Science/ Russian Socialist Movement) offered a detailed historical account of the Russian intelligentsia’s relationship with “the people.” To simplify his argument, if the emerging nineteenth-century intelligentsia sought to overcome its enormous social distance from “the people,” its late-twentieth-century successors took exactly the opposition direction: towards greater distinction from the masses. Specifying his terms, Budraytskis argued that today’s intelligentsia comprises two vastly different social categories—poorly paid teachers, museum workers, and others who have not become part of today’s capital flows, on the one hand, and well-to-do urban middle classes, on the other—and is thus primarily a residual ideological and historical category with little real economic basis. The huge irony Budraytskis pointed to was that it is precisely Latynina and her peers throughout Central and Eastern Europe who have achieved virtual monopoly on the category “democrats” while at the same time denying the right and capacity of “the people” to govern themselves. While Latynina represents the reductio ad absurdum of the anti-populist liberal position, this attitude is shared by the majority of postsocialist intellectuals, who view the poor and the less educated as the major obstacle to their countries’ accession to “the West.”

Other talks throughout the conference kept returning to that motif of the anti-populism of the intellectuals in its different manifestations. Drawing on Spanish material, Nellie Buier (CEU/ Critic Atac) showed how professional historians have suppressed the histories of working-class militancy in the last years of Franco’s rule in favor of a more orderly transition narrative with settlements negotiated between political leaders. The intellectuals’ epistemological, cultural, and political bias against working-class subjects quickly emerged as a central theme in the conference and the theme of future initiatives. Joining the conference via skype, Stefan Guga (CEU/ Critic Atac) demonstrated Romanian sociology’s scholarly erasure of the working class over the last twenty years. If it ever merited any attention, it was in the role of “homo Sovieticuses” incapable of participating in civil society (a category reserved for “the middle classes, the agent of progress in the transitology/ democratization paradigm). It suffices to look at the questions on which the RussianLevadaCenter bases its surveys to see that those problems aren’t confined to Romanian sociology. Continued scholarly struggle against “communism,” topics-defined research grants, and ultimately, postsocialist sociologists’ own class position and aspirations explain the huge lacunae and biases of their field.

Another whole panel run by Mikolai Lewicki, Adam Ostolsky and Maciek Gdula (Warsaw University/ Krytyka Politycna) was devoted to the banishment of the category of “class” (except, of course, in the oft-invoked “middle class”) from Polish sociology and its replacement with a stratification analysis, whose central categories (division of labor, inequality, mobility) not only offer a very weak critique of the contemporary neoliberal order but also help naturalize it. Interestingly, they argued, the substitution took place with the very founding of sociology in Soviet-bloc countries, already in the 1960s rather than after 1989. Governments, state socialist or capitalist, don’t particularly like the exposure of social conflict in their societies. Happy to oblige, Polish sociology has traditionally divided society into eight functionalist (and hence, reasonably harmonious) strata. Departing from that convention in the second part of their panel, Ostolsky and Gdula limited that number to three and offered a Bourdieusian class analysis of those categories. Their presentation was followed by a lively exchange regarding the applicability of Bourdieu’s theory beyond French society, the relevance of their findings about Polish class structure to other postsocialist societies, and the difference between Marxian and Bourdieusian class analysis. (The latter was found more pessimistic as it could not imagine a world without exploitation, unlike the former, which had a utopia.)

Right to the City

One of the most impressive panels was a collective presentation by six members of Budapest’s City for All group, comprising homeless people and student activists (Mariann Dosa, Zsuzsana Postfai, and Csaba Jelinek). After an extended introduction of David Harvey’s Right to the City (RTC) framework and the global context of urban struggles, the presenters focused on their own movement. An alliance of homeless people and younger, middle-class student activists is not necessarily an easy one to maintain. That the City for All has survived the tensions over the last several years and even come up with strategies to diminish the division of labor between the two groups is a testimony to the longevity of their initiative.

In the ensuing discussion about the applicability of the RTC framework, conference participants did not reach a single conclusion about its potential. On the one hand, the processes of urban dispossession and capital accumulation and the resulting tensions between extreme wealth and extreme poverty are if anything more dramatic in the postsocialist world than they are in Western European or North American cities, where this framework was first developed. As RTC activists assert following Henri Lefebvre, the city has indeed become the new factory, the new site of consciousness formation. On the other hand, that framework misses the poverty and social problems spatially displaced outside of the city. Many on the left would find the rights concepts on which RTC is based too liberal to offer an analysis of power relations. Complicating the applicability question is the sheer unevenness of the postsocialist urban structure: if the stories of the homeless activists were about escaping unemployment in smaller towns and villages only to find themselves without housing in Budapest, the city where the jobs and capital are concentrated, Warsaw does not enjoy such a dominant position vis-à-vis other Polish cities and the Polish RTC movement is less centered on the country’s capital. Kacper Pobocki (University of Poznan/ RTC Poland) demonstrated how RTC language and practices could be employed by both middle-class bicyclists in need of bike lanes and by working-class city-dwellers, who have seen the public space available to them diminish owing to overbuilding. Using his study of the Romanian city of Cluj, Norbert Petrovici (Babeş-Bolyai University/ Group for Social Action) examined an urban politics based on another, more problematic alliance: between the nationalist middle classes (represented by Mayor Gheorghe Funar) and working-class ethnic Romanians.

In the ensuing discussion, Volodymyr Ishchenko (Protest Data Project Director @ Kiev’s Center for Society Research/ the Ukrainian Commons journal) expressed his doubts whether Ukrainian urban movements can become the site of core leftist struggles. Urban protests, he argued, have so far failed to transcend the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) stage and link up in a geographically and politically broader movement. At the same time, urban struggles are easily co-optable as the far-right Ukrainian party Svoboda recently illustrated when it claimed the successes of one particular wave of urban protests in Kiev. In her comparative study of Venezuelan and Bulgarian practices of squatting and the official response to them, Mariya Ivancheva drew attention to the role of the state in those struggles. The contrast between the Bulgarian state’s eviction of the Roma inhabiting one Sofia neighborhood and the Venezuelan state’s (contradictory, but still, admirable) initiative of housing Caracas’s homeless in refugios (abandoned hotels and other unused buildings) was not in Bulgaria’s favor. When the European Court and NGOs finally intervened to help the evicted Roma, they did so in a highly problematic way, reducing the eviction to individual discrimination based on skin color rather than urban inequalities and economic structure.

The Uncivil Society: Countermovements on the Right

The discussion of urban social movements nicely set up the next two panels devoted to counter-hegemonic movements on the right and the left, respectively. A number of different frameworks have been applied to the study of right-wing movements. In terms of their origins, most scholarship has seen their members as either homo Sovieticuses unable to adapt to the new realities or as subjects driven by populist (unrealistic) passions. In terms of political function, right-wing movements are often interpreted as a surrogate left (here one is reminded of August Babel’s “anti-Semitism as the socialism of the fools” thesis) or as the Trojan horse of capitalism. Martin Marinos’s (U of Pittsburgh/ New Left Initiatives, Bulgaria) presentation sought to place the major Bulgarian nationalist party (ATAKA, which at its peak received 15% of the vote) precisely on this more traditional left-to-right spectrum. He contrasted their loudly declared interest in social justice for Bulgarians with the emptiness of the publicity stunts meant to demonstrate that commitment and the equally loudly declared support for national capitalism. Ultimately, he had to conclude that whatever their economic views, they are at best of secondary interest in their overall ideology and their coherence is thus not particularly important. The other two case studies examined the specific forms in which nationalist parties operated. Marek Mikuš (LSE) described a Serbian right-wing movement attempting to fight the Belgrade LGBT Pride Parade, among other things, by adopting the language and practices of an NGO. This, uncivil society, mimics all the features of civil society, defends its prisoners (arrested as for beating up Pride Parade participants), using the language of human rights, supports “grassroots” initiatives (to beat up some or other minority), and runs a “civic slate” of candidates for parliament. Finally, Ilya Budraytsksis contextualized right-wing movements’ trajectories in and out of the Russian system of managed democracy. In the mid-2000s, the ruling elite attempted to incorporate nationalists into the parliamentary system through the Rodina party. When the party grew in popularity on the eve of the 2005 Moscow Duma elections and when nationalists showed signs of radicalization (especially in the aftermath of the 2005 anti-Chechen pogroms in the northern city of Kondogopa), however, it was thrown out of managed democracy and the authorities set about taming its more extremist factions. Despite the nationally specific context out of which they emerged, the right-wing movements looked very recognizeable to all conference participants and the discussion proceeded without significant disagreements.

Too numerous to capture: Countermovements on the Left

That wasn’t true of the counter-movements on the left, the panel meant to be the centerpiece of the whole conference. Whether it was the exhaustion of the fourth day of the conference or the fact that most of us had left the bar at 2 am the night before thanks to Gáspár Miklós Tamás’s presence, the accounts told of leftist political protests in postsocialist societies did not stick together very well. It was suggested later, at the end of the conference, that the panel’s coherence problem might be symptomatic of the lack of knowledge of each other’s social movements and our absence of a common language to articulate them. The conference was not assembled under the formal principle of representing different groups from the postsocialist world: it just so happened that a significant portion of the participants were involved in one social movement or another. Those movements took very different forms. The panel was opened by AndrásIstvánffy, the leader of the Fourth Republic, a Hungarian formation that identifies as a populist left and is in the process of entering electoral politics in Hungary. Other participants identified their organizations as journals of social critique: the Polish Krytyka Polityczna, the Ukrainian Спiлне (Commons), the Belorussian Прасвет (Dawn) or the Romanian Critic Atac. In each case, the journal serves as the basis for a much wider range of activities of the group. But even within the range of those journals, the situation is barely comparable. Founded in 2002, Krytyka Polityzna is the oldest such magazine and the largest organization. It has a huge publishing house with over 100 employees, discussion clubs in a couple of dozen Polish cities and ongoing international efforts such as a London branch and a Ukrainian-language version of the journal. By contrast, the Нови Леви Перспективи (New Left Perspectives) collective to which most Bulgarian conference participants belonged emerged only this year and is only now developing a journal of its own. Nevertheless, in addition to the impressive speaker series it initiated this year, they are frequent travelers to smaller Bulgarian cities where they screen political documentary films as well as active participants in Sofia protests. A member of that collective, Mariya Ivancheva spoke at length about her experience of trying to persuade young middle-class ecological protesters from Sofia to act beyond their immediate class interest and link their struggles with other social or labor protests. Another organizational form represented at the conference was student activism and even then there were several different instantiations of it: the Ukrainian independent student union Direct Action, the Croatian union of students and faculty, and the Hungarian Student Network. The three groups represented different types of response to the inaction and bureaucratization of the official student unions in their country. Such a variety of organizational forms reflects the specific conditions faced by activists in a given society but also complicates their interaction.

Longer talks

While the conference was conceived as a “school without teachers,” several senior scholars did support our effort with a talk. In the opening day of the conference, the Hungarian historian and sociologist Attila Melegh (Corvinus University/ Global Civil Society Program) offered a comparative view of political violence in the post-WWII world, the world of Stalin’s Gulag and political purges in the newly-constructed Soviet bloc but also of colonial and racial violence perpetrated by the British, French, and US state. Melegh argued that the latter is usually missing from discussions of totalitarianism, a discourse usually reserved for Nazi Germany and the Soviet bloc. This kind of erasure allows a figure such as Robert Schumann to be remembered solely for his role as the founding father of the European Union rather than a major figure of mid-twentieth-century French colonial policy. What allowed Melegh to conduct such comparisons was not some measure of the political violence such as numbers of casualties, but the economic relations that underlay that violence, whether of a Stalinist or capitalist kind. Defining capitalism as a global fight for resources, for example, he posited that there is no such thing as a capitalist state in itself. Such a state necessarily exists within a capitalist state system of which colonial capitalism constituted a major part in the post-WWII period.

In his talk “Whitened Histories,” the Hungarian-American sociologist József Böröcz (Rutgers U, New Jersey) continued his long-term project of applying a postcolonial perspective to the European Union. In this talk, however, he focused on race relations in Hungary’s postsocialist politics. Defining a racial view of the world as a perspective that divides humanity into distinct populations, which could be placed in a hierarchical and trans-historical order, Böröcz claimed that the coincidental development of that view, of classical sociology, and of many of the institutions of the modern East European state meant the incorporation of that view into scholarship and state bureaucracy. The socialist state was only partially interested in or successful at its elimination. Since the end of that regime type was divorced from critiques of pre-1945 capitalism, what we have now is the full-fledged restoration of that racial worldview in the postsocialist world. In its pursuit of its pre-communist origins and the privileges of global whiteness, the Hungarian state has been rehabilitating fairly odious expressions or proponents of that racial worldview, especially from the interwar era. Employing the trope of “whiteness”—both physical and metaphorical,–Böröcz went on to interpret a number of cultural debates in today’s Hungary that range from the politics of memorialization (the ghettoization and leveling of art produced during state socialism or the rehabilitation of some odious pre- or anti-communist figures) to representations of Africans or Roma in mass culture. For him, the whole pursuit of a “European” identity in the postsocialist world is a deeply fraught activity because of the inextricability of “European identity” from whiteness and colonialism.

Professor László Bruszt (European University Institute/ CEU) gave a talk on critical sociology. Speaking in favor of a more pluralistic approach to critical sociology, Professor Bruszt argued that neoclassical sociology (the ideas of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Polanyi) could also serve as basis for social critique, favorably contrasting that tradition to “dogmatic Marxism.” Despite the very cordial tone of the subsequent question-and-answer session, one was left under the impression that most of the audience were left unpersuaded by Bruszt’s argument, siding instead with “dogmatic Marxism.” The final question posed by a member of that audience—whether one could say that neoclassical sociology’s positive ideal lies in a “capitalism with a human face” whereas Marxism cannot imagine an ideal within contemporary capitalism, answered by Professor Bruszt in the affirmative—gave a succinct formulation to the difference between speaker and the majority of the audience.

The conference closed, appropriately, with an uplifting and programmatic speech by Gáspár Miklós Tamás, a leading Hungarian intellectual and former dissident. According to him, the demise of the Communist Party as a political form opens the question about the forms our challenge to the global economic order could take. Without giving concrete answers to that question, he suggested three principles in developing those forms: an insistence on spontaneity and refusal of hierarchy; no abandonment of our preoccupation with theory; and a certain monastic rigor. He went on to elaborate the last point through an extensive analogy with early Christianity, which owed much of its success to the fasting, celibacy, and life of voluntary poverty of its practitioners. Early Christians’ courage of absolute refusal offers a powerful model of the self-denial of academic accolades and institutional acceptance. Using the example of the Soviet bloc of the 1960s, which entered into a competition for economic development with the West (and lost), Gáspár Miklos Tamás argued that today’s left shouldn’t compete with the liberal mainstream on the latter’s terms but should instead build its own, parallel institutions. Similarly, we shouldn’t debate the liberals on their own terms. We shouldn’t have to accept the moralizing and naturalizing terms of today’s discourses about the Greeks/ gypsies/ the poor being too lazy, the intellectuals—too useless, the old—too old. At best, those debates put us on the defensive. The only hope we have of winning them is by reframing them historically, for our side is with history and against the moralizing and racializing discourses of the right. And if the postsocialist left is weaker than many of its kindred movements in the West or the South, capitalism in this part of the world—its institutions, its legitimacy, and its hold over people’s minds—is also weaker. Eastern Europe has always been a weak link of capitalism and this is the source of our hope. The fact remains as true nowadays as it was in Lenin’s time.

What Is to Be Done?

Following Gáspár Miklós Tamás’s speech, the conference participants spent the final hour planning what is to be done after they leave Budapest. Even after an exhausting five days there was a collective determination and sufficient energy not to let this conference be yet another event promptly forgotten after its end. The political and intellectual stakes of the conversation were simply too high. Most of the proposals voiced concerned the integration of the various ongoing initiatives (upcoming activist meetings of the Transeuropa Network, academic conferences in the US later in 2012, the ex-Yugoslav Subversive Festival or thematic journal issues by the Hungarian Fordulat and the Ukrainian Commons) that place neoliberalism and its countermovements at the center of the analysis of postsocialist societies. The Bulgarian participants graciously offered to host next year’s gathering. Most of this concluding session, however, went towards the proposal to establish an open-source online magazine, in the format of Eurozine, but postsocialist in scope and leftist in its politics. The practical labor on such a magazine would allow to both work out the collective identity and to attract new people. The success or failure of the conference will be in large part measured by the realization of those proposals.

Regardless of their fate, however, in at least one respect the conference was an indisputable success. Critically minded young scholars from different East European societies, no longer content with the mantras of “democratization,” “civil society,” and “Europe,” which have at best unwittingly obscured and at worst valorized the neoliberalization of the former Second World, met each other, walked the streets of Budapest, and drank many a beer in Budapest’s Jewish district. Getting to know each other, to compare notes, to form communities and relationships is the first and necessary step to any transnational challenge to the neoliberal hegemony in the postsocialist space.

(event report by Rossen Djagalov)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: