Rory Archer: Leftists should not shy away from assessing the defective aspects of the socialist Yugoslav project

Rory Archer; Photo: Predrag Momčilović / Mašina

Rory Archer is a historian who researches social history of the Balkans in the 20th century and currently works at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University College London. Archer explores the ways in which “ordinary” Yugoslavs interpreted economic, political and cultural tensions in late socialism and reacted to them. Since 2014 he has worked with Goran Musić on a research project titled Between Class and Nation: Working class communities in the eighties in Serbia and Montenegro. In 2015 he completed his PhD in Graz with a dissertation on the (in)affordability of housing among the working class in Belgrade, and in 2016 co-authored the book Social Inequalities and Disaffection in Yugoslavian Socialism.

In December last year Archer held a public lecture at the Center for Cultural Decontamination in Belgrade, as a part of the project “Pertej / Beyond / Over 20 Years”, providing us the opportunity to converse with Archer about his research.

What sparked your interest in the social history of the Balkans? 

There is no coherent chain of events. Growing up in Ireland in the 1990s I was exposed to news headlines about the war(s) and vaguely recall knowing toponyms like Belgrade, Sarajevo, Krajina, Tuzla and so on.

I first went to Belgrade (and elsewhere in former Yugoslavia) in the early 2000s as part of bigger trips around Europe, hitchhiking, camping, taking excessively long train journeys and so on. I made friends in Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo and have been returning ever since. My private and professional life became enmeshed with the Balkans over the years and when I started working at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz and began doctoral studies in 2011 my research became a fulltime job.

You are interested in the questions of class and labour. Why are those concepts, or phenomena, still important?

For Mašina readers I presume the importance of questions of class and labour are self-evident, both as categories of analysis and frameworks for organisation and collective action. Class formations, class reproduction and the make-up of the labour force may have changed and are still changing rapidly but they still inform our understanding of the recent past as well as whatever vision we have for society in the near future.

They are also underutilised concepts for the social history of Yugoslavia. Of all the studies published about SFRY and its break-up not a single one (yet!) keeps the constituency of industrial workers at the forefront of analysis – very curious considering this was a workers’ state and striking workers were deeply implicated in key events, including Milošević’s political consolidation during the 1988-1989 antibureaucratic revolution and then his ousting in October 2000.

Your research into the issues of housing and labour inequality in SFRY points to a lot of weak points in the Yugoslav socialist project. Do you assume a leftist political stance, and if so – are you bothered that your research could be used to strengthen the argumentation of anti-socialist actors? 

I believe that those who assume leftist political stances, myself included, should not shy away from assessing the defective aspects of the socialist Yugoslav project. To do so would render it the preserve of the political right and would be quite dishonest. At the same time, criticism, reflexivity, ambivalence and cynicism were inherent to the Yugoslav project, particularly in late socialism, the period I mostly work on, and I seek to capture this in my research.

Having worked on an edited volume titled Social inequalities and discontent in Yugoslav Socialism I have worried that my research could be used by others to make (inaccurate) arguments along the lines that the state and system was considered illegitimate or even immoral on the part of much of its citizens. Luckily, this does not seem to have happened so far.

Recently you held a lecture titled From socially owned flats to self-built houses: Housing provision in Yugoslav socialism and its post-socialist privatization. How was housing produced and distributed in SFRY? 

Well, housing was somewhat piecemeal in terms of its production and distribution in Yugoslavia. A meta-narrative would usually focus on the nationalisation of most of the housing stock after 1945 and the new socialist state leading the way in large construction projects in the post-war push for rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. With the turn to self-management housing was constructed by and for the social sector. The goal was socialist and egalitarian (the provision of subsidised housing for Yugoslavia’s industrial workers) but in practice, the system was more erratic.

Rather than contributing to the formation of a classless society, social sector housing forged new social inequalities. The system was unable to provide sufficient numbers of flats for the huge numbers of Yugoslavs moving to the cities and the distribution process favoured white-collar rather than blue-collar workers. Socially owned housing came to resemble a benefit in kind or a means to induce labour mobility (e.g. by attracting skilled workers) rather than an affordable option for the working-class. Many didn’t manage to get such an accommodation, and so rectified their housing situation in other ways, like building a home independently for example, or subletting someone else’s socially owned flat in the private market. This was not unique to Yugoslavia – similar dynamics were seen across socialist Eastern Europe by urban sociologists like Ivan Szelényi.

You mention new inequalities that emerged due to an unequal distribution of available housing. It’s a bit of a tricky formulation, since it implies that the redistribution of housing in the SFRY didn’t manage to annihilate the old inequalities, and instead just created new inequalities on top of the already existing ones. Was that the case?

Of course not. There were even more striking inequalities in the interwar Yugoslavia. This is completely clear. Overall, not only in terms of housing, we see huge, huge social mobility in the post-war years in Yugoslavia – the late 1940s, and particularly in the 1950s and the 1960s, but already in the 1960s and the 1970s once can witness more stratification, social mobility began to close.

Social mobility, stratification… What do these terms mean, in colloquial speech? 

In layperson’s terms stratification mean the differentiation of individuals and groups into hierarchical strata based on their occupation, income and social power. Social mobility refers to the movement between these strata.

I’m focusing on late socialism, which for the purposes of my research I define as between 1974 and 1989. I’m most interested in the people who came of age in the 1970s and particularly in the 1980s. They grew up with a kind of a model of a life course, a very Fordist model, that, with some distinctions, was a family-centred model that counts on upward mobility within the workplace. The social contract which was the basis for this mobility, begins to be somewhat blocked sometime in the late sixties, when the market mechanism come in, and breaks down around of the time of the economic crisis in 1979.

I remember how one oral history narrator with whom I spoke said: „I was born in the 1948. I couldn’t dream that things wouldn’t continue as they did”. It’s somebody who would have come of age, say, in the mid 1960-es, and he just couldn’t imagine that things wouldn’t get infinitely better. He had raised expectations. Perhaps in some ways the success of the social mobility and thus raised expectations made it especially hard for the generations who came of age in the 1970s, 1980s, to accept the blocked social mobility.

What we definitely see in the seventies and even more in the eighties is almost a generation of people who had a tough time entering the workforce, and with it find that they can’t socialise in the same way that people did previously. As Yugoslav society became more and more complex and faced an economic crisis, people perhaps became more cynical, but they were at the same time in fact offered much less than people would have been 20 or 30 years previously. This created a tension – they expected much more, but, in contrast to that, the situation had been bad for some time.

Does it differ much from the experience of people coming of age or being born at roughly the same times in other European states? Was this the result of the failure of the socialist project, or a broader crisis? 

There are certainly parallels – the post WWII boom is something broadly common to European states. Similarly, the consequences of the oil crisis and general instability of the 1970s can be observed across the continent. I guess I see the 1970s and 1980s in UK, Yugoslavia and beyond as a crisis of modernity with certain aspects unique to state-socialist and capitalist systems but many commonalities also.

The closing down of vertical mobility in Great Britain already in the seventies, the instability and the crisis, brought about a frustration that contributed to the popularity of Thatcher’s politics. If you go back to housing, the idea of being an owner of a house was planted earlier in UK than in Yugoslavia.

Illustration from worker papers in eighties

Would you agree with the claims that privatization was pushed by the IMF, the World bank and foreign expert agencies? In your opinion, was there a lack of discussion on the matter, and of possible alternatives to the sell-out and privatization of the public housing stock to individual sitting tenants?

I would argue that in the 1970s as well, but certainly in the 1980s, you have a kind of an officially sanctioned criticism from certain parts of society and from the party state. An idea that people should pay 4% of the value of the house was pushed through in different resolutions, from 1978 on. In Yugoslavia, with its market socialism, it could have made sense. In reality,  the average was around 1%. At that rate it would take 300 years to cover the cost of building the flat, and let alone maintaining it.

It’s clear to us in the hindsight that there’s a big difference between charging a rent that would be a realistic portion of one’s wages and leaving it at that and privatising the housing stock. The cost of renting in Yugoslavia was so minimal, it was like a 5% of one’s wage. And, at the same time, it’s quite obvious that the workers who are renting apartments privately are paying one entire monthly wage. The rogue builders also paid a lot, all the while risking losing the whole investment. They essentially could have raised the cost of renting from the publicly owned housing fund, without overburdening the tenants with expenses – unlike today, when people give an average of 35-40% of their pay for housing expenses.

Were the people aware of the outside pressures from the IMF and the World Bank? IMF pressured Yugoslavia to impose austerity measures as early as in the early eighties; but from the point of view of the workers, the bureaucrats might have been the only ones to blame for the plummeting of their standard of life.

An impression which comes from looking at the sources, like the different factory newspapers and oral history, is that huge amount of blame for austerity was placed at SIV. SIV was the boogeyman, although it imposed the measures that were actually pushed by the likes of IMF and the World Bank. Senior management, white collar workers were the ones who were explaining and imposing „stabilisation“ – austerity measures. From the point of view of the workers it was something imposed by the federal government and by the management.

Perhaps your experience with the working class communities is helpful here. For three years you have been working on a project called „Between class and nation: Working class communities in 1980s Serbia and Montenegro”. Can you tell us a little more about it? 

Yugoslavia was formally and factually a workers’ country: it was predicated on the idea of workers’ self-management and workers were involved in participatory politics in different ways. Workers are also implicated in the breakdown of the state through their mass protests in the second half of the 1980s. Yugoslavia had the highest rate of workers’ strikes in the 1980s in Europe per capita; then, there’s this cliché of workers of Rakovica arriving as workers and leaving as Serbs, used to describe the role of workers in Milošević’s coming to power. So, workers are written into the story of the breakdown of Yugoslavia, as the ones who lost or traded their workers’ for their national identity, but, surprisingly enough, no one has done any serious research on the subject until rather recently.

What does it mean to be “between class and nation”, and why is this important?

One of our main ideas would be that the language of class could be remapped in a national(ist) context. The term working class was still pushed in with other terms – narod, the people, and this is very obvious in the 1980s: the calling upon the happening of the people, and so on. I think that this is key as well to the legitimacy of Milošević’s rise to power in the late 1980s. He used such terminology that made it very hard to criticize him: to criticize him would almost mean that you are against the working class, that you are anti-Yugoslav and that you were coming from the far right. It was quite cleverly done on his behalf.

Speaking in general, the terms “class” and “nation” are not a priori opposite – they could be, so to say, parallel, and they could be interfacing.

You did research in four different industrial communities. Did they react similarly?

We did research in Rakovica, Zrenjanin, Nikšić and Priboj. We deliberately picked out communities with different history: an old industrial centre like Zrenjanin, with a history of working class movements prior to Second World War, and textile industry, feminised working force. Rakovica, centre of happenings; then a more inert community like Priboj, peripheral surroundings with no industrial heritage prior to the 50s, when FAP Priboj is built; and, of course, Montenegro is a totally different context.

They reacted differently, or at different times, with a delay. The anti-bureaucratic revolution happened in Priboj much, much later, some 10 months after it already happened elsewhere. Then in Nikšić we already have a counter-protest. They were trying to put the language of class back in, and push the social demands back in a gathering called the Protest of the hungry. They were trying to tone down this national frenzy and reinsert the idea of class. However, the end result was the same. All of the communities that we looked at changed the local governments, changed some key people at the level of municipality and the level of the workplace.

Do the people who were involved in those processes feel responsible for them now, or manipulated?

It takes a lot of self-awareness and reflexivity for someone to acknowledge guilt or manipulation. However, I think that many do to an extent. Maybe they do not articulate a great sense of responsibility but a sense of manipulation is palpable for many.

How did they envision the possible solutions for their situation? What did they ask for? 

Since one aspect of the problem was the fact that people were alienated, it doesn’t surprise to see that they didn’t ask for a single coherent solution. I think it was more a feeling of general dissatisfaction and cynicism. Sometimes there were calls for more thorough redistribution of wealth, sometimes calls were made to more fervently implement worker self-management principles.

How about war-mongering?

When you go through these archives and learn who were the national agitators, it’s mostly people from the upper middle class. It’s rarely the workers. Reports from the security forces in the 1980s outlining agitation point to university professors, writers, and cultural workers – very seldom do blue-collars feature.

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