Neoliberalism as a new kind of politics. Lesson from the East

… A STEP ASIDE How to translate one’s own activist-intellectual experience into a global imaginery of political action and resistance? How to desist from the populist temptation in fighting neoliberalism? At first glance the choice of these two questions and tasks  appears arbitrary, clinic but what follows will be a brief historico-political explanation why I [...]

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How to translate one’s own activist-intellectual experience into a global imaginery of political action and resistance? How to desist from the populist temptation in fighting neoliberalism?

At first glance the choice of these two questions and tasks  appears arbitrary, clinic but what follows will be a brief historico-political explanation why I  think that exactly these two topics pose a major urgency for our self-understanding.

My  intention, abortion ie. to define and articulate some specific intellectual experience emerging from the fights against neoliberalism in Eastern Europe, is at its basic level traversed by the intuition that such an undertaking is difficult and maybe even impropable. The task to translate and to make our own struggles comprehensible to others at the realm beyond our respective local societies and nation-states consists therefore at first in a step aside.

To step aside, both from Eastern Europe and neoliberalism, means something other than an academic excercise where we would be in need of a conceptual clarification. As if  a basic set of globally valid attributes would guarentee that we understand each other, and that from the moment on such a set has been established, it would be  without  hesitation possible to go on with delineating particular geographical set-ups.

The step-aside  in question is literally a retreating from the immediate present, taken not in order to escape the present and its demands but to open up our understanding how this present has been constituted. It is namely my premise that to understand the specifics of current societal development in Eastern Europe we have to look after  broader historical patterns, notwithstanding all the grave differences, shifts and breaks encountered that usually would not allow to sketch a larger historical account .

Talking about today’s neoliberalism in Eastern Europe for me therefore means to go back to late socialist period of the 1970ies and 1980ies – not to contrast two different sociopolitical models [socialism vs. capitalism] but to join them, making a proper montage. A montage of heterogenous elements, paradoxically making visible that what lacks and goes beyond visibility.

Again, this step-aside does not mean that we have to excavate some deeper layer of reality, some more basic truth from the socialist legacy that from now on would serve as a new, more just or human imperative. Neither is the task to supplant the already established and familiar depiction of neoliberalism with some socialist flavours, where speaking of neoliberalism in Eastern Europe would amount to the formula or truism that neoliberalism there is just a neoliberalism in post-socialist societies.

No. My  impossible montage – guided by the insight that there is a major structural similarity between late-socialist period and neoliberalism –  shall touch upon a political realm I  think is the proper novelty of both late socialism and neoliberalism.

A direct consequence of such an analogy would amount to say that neoliberalism’s entering into former socialist Europe has been far more complicated than the unilinear account would like to have it. Much more than being the colonization-effect of globalization, I will argue that neoliberalism in Eastern Europe was already nested by late socialism. Another important result would be to perceive the overtly socio-political dimension of neoliberalism, not being content with taking neoliberalism just as an economic paradigm.

To support my  argument I  will look closer at the alleged structural necessity of late socialism and neoliberalism, asking myself what in both regimes is or was the paradigmatic social product and how the antagonistic dynamics within the constitution of such a social product has given way to a new kind of politics.


In search of the proper socialist social product in case of Yugoslavia we have to go back to late 1960ies. Following a major economic reform from mid-sixties, the then inititated debate on the constitutional restructuring of the state and the students protest of 1968 a dominant antagonism has become evident: it was the dichotomy of the self-managed democracy versus the (real) socialist state.

It could be argued that this antagonism was a major Yugoslav innovative  restatement of the double-state structure that according to German-Jewish legal scholar Ernst Fraenkel is characteristic of the 20th century totalitarian state. Fraenkel’s notion of the double-state has been recently prominently used in Agamben’s theorization  of the state of emergency, where its validity has been universalized, meaning that not just 20th century totalitarianisms but also all today’s liberal-democratic regimes are being doubled. In brief, theory of the double-state will say as much that the sovereign state has been split in two antagonistic states or modes: the first one is the so called normalized state  where legal and other socio-political orders are pretty much functioning according to their  modernist institutionalist paradigm. But, simultaneously,  there is also another  state – the state of decree where regulatory measures taken contradict the normalized paradigm in a voluntarist or almost anarchic manner.

Yugoslav double-state complicates heavily such a theory, in as much it could be argued that the socialist doubling of the state was not even realized in the realm of the state since the proposed goal of the self-managed democracy was to abolish the state altogether. So that in the end we have an antagonism which runs along the lines state vs. non-state or state vs. other-than-state democracy. Even if conceeded that at first such a paradoxical antagonism was merely a methodical abstraction or an idealizatation within the Yugoslav (intellectual) elites, the discursive treatment of that antagonism has become socially relevant and popular throughout the 1970ies in Yugoslavia so that already during the following decade immediate effects of such an antagonistic paradigm could be observed and taken as granted. To put it otherwise: my case it is not so much to argue that socialist Yugoslavia has resembled the state of emergency as theorized by Agamben, but to investigate how such a theory is being productive,  creative if put into the socio-political loop of an entire regim ie. if the theory itself generates a new set of relevant social practices. Of utmost importance regarding my starting point – the question how struggles against neoliberalism are shaped – is the shift where the socialist social product wasn’t anymore defined as  (the state of) fear or terror (as done by great number of Eastern European dissidents) but as the social gross-product emerging out of the essential antagonism of state and non-state. A consequence for  my considerations would be that already in the 1970ies, at least in the Yugoslav case, dissidency has lost its role as the privileged site for confronting societal pathologies.

In early 1980ies the matter of the productivity of such an antagonism has been adressed by Zoran Đinđić in his influential volume “Yugoslavia – An Unfinished State”. For Đinđić the antagonism regulating the overall social dynamics is defined by the the voluntarist diffusion or dispersal of the state-sovereignty, but this should not come as a surprise as the proclaimed Yugoslav goal was the transition to a self-managed democracy that at the very end would abolish the state and henceforth all forms of conventionally conceived sovereignty. If this diffusive transitionality is the Yugoslav social product per se, Đinđić tries to answer the question that is relevant for me  - what is the form or possibility of the critique and protest granted that such an antagonistic transitional state has come to the fore.

To quote Đinđić: “Since the permanency of the state of exception has been systematically stabilized, the difference between a “normal” and an “exceptional state” has lost its evidence. Instead to legitimize the political action in a situation where some of the members of the community are in danger, that evidence itself becomes the object of a political non-action. [...] Because the normality as an unambiguous criterion is lacking, everything becomes a matter of interpretation – everything becomes arbitrary.”

That which once was dissidency in Đinđić is nothing else than a blunt decadency, idle chatter. Taken the author’s intellectual framework it could easily be argued that in late, transitional socialism sociality has reached its pathological apex, impotent to get rid of the parasitical nature of its (communicative) self-understanding.

This is exactly the point where Đinđić’s statements meet Foucault’s and Balibar’s conceptualization of a new kind of polity emerging during the decline of sovereign nation-state. Balibar, for example, will call this new political reality “racism”, being constituted in the  ”conflictual relationship towards the state, which is being experienced in a perverted guise, projected as a relation towards the Other.”

If this new politics – Foucault’s and Balibar’s paradoxical racism without a race, racism whose subject/object is foremost the state and not some specific population –  appears to apply to all modern nation-states in the period of their decline,  how much more that insight is valid for a state whose explicit imperative was to wither away as it was the case with socialist Yugoslavia?

Altogether a politics whose violent potential is communicative, whose norms are arbitrary and subjected to permanent interpretative reevaluation and differentiation – finally, a politics paralyzing and endlessly postponing any proper political action.

Socialist double-state has created a novel social product: a politics without a proper name or racism, if put in Foucauldian and Balibarian terms. A social product of total communicative force and no political power, unleashing in full the rhetorical economy while making political action impossible.

Socialist states in Eastern Europe have disappeared and many of the socialist ideals have been compromised. But has the social product of socialism disappeared, too?


How many neoliberalisms there are today? This question doesn’t concern only the definition and taxonomy of neoliberal types, but it addresses the very foundation of what we call neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, on the one hand, seams a well-established technical term and  a universally valid nom-de-guerre of a new kind of capitalism. On the other hand, neoliberalism is essentially being characterized through (geographical) unevenness and it is more to be understood as a differential set-up lacking any stable description beside its praying upon and producing stratificatory differences among various geographical areas and functional domains.

Neoliberalism is doubled. Taken in singular, it incites total liberation of the market, privatization of the public goods, and exclusively limited state-intervention into domain of economy and trade. It is the mechanism of producing excessive surplus-profits for the ruling classes, making social injusticies even more accute  accumulating wealth by sheer dispossesion, as Harvey will say.

As plural, neoliberalism confronts us with infinite number of accounts about neoliberalism world-wide, that seem almost untranslatable and incomprehensible outside the context of their own emergence.

For the societies of former Yugoslavia, for example, the narrative will tell that they  experienced the effects of neoliberal policies just recently, with a delay, mainly because of the war, and partially because of the economical transition (transformation and privatization) that is somewhat similar to certain neoliberal premises, but is isolated from wider, global courses.

In this other, pluraistl narrative, neoliberalism is more an exception than the rule or uniform paradigm and it happens in strictly defined spatial pockets. Neoliberal practices parasite there on already existent infrastructures, and extra/surplus profit is created by taking into account the differential between multiplicity of areas and domains.

My  case in discerning sharply two modes of neoliberalism, the one as a system and the other as a geographical variable, is to outline the doubled, antagonistic nature of neoliberalism itself.

Briefly – what happens in those societies where neoliberalism in singular is not the dominant mode of production, and where it would seem that it can be contained within alloted spaces, as an exception as Aihwa Ong has described? In Ong’s outline neoliberalism meets non-neoliberal practices, as if those strips and pockets, those temporary zones neoliberal capital has conquered are just a confined colonization of space.

But, what if neoliberalism in singular here exactly meets its plural double? What if  neoliberalism here meets its differential double which emerges out of  unevenness? What if neoliberalism alien meets neoliberalism nested?

This means that antagonism between the singular and the plural of neoliberalism is an internal clash within neoliberalism itself. Just to remind you of countless examples where interventions by institutions like the IMF or the World Bank are fought in the name of some limited nation-state concern or interest, while that same interest has been shaped in the first place by the (neoliberalist taking advantage of) geographical unevenness.

Another example of the same neoliberal antagonistic structure is valid for former Yugoslav territories, ie. the so-called delay. Many will say that the delay in introducing neoliberalism proper (meaning neoliberalism in singular as a set of specific policies) into those countries allows for at least a cognitive advantage that in its turn would make possible to bypass the errors of neoliberalism experienced elsewhere. Again, this kind of reasoning which is incredibly attractive to local elites and populations obliterates the fact that its own position is constituted by unevenness and that this stance itself is inherently neoliberal. A direct lesson for critical intellectuals would be to distrust the populist or ethno-nationalist discouses and respective mobilizations against neoliberalism since that is no more than an internal struggle within neoliberalism, and only in a very deterministic framework that struggle could bring neoliberalism to fall.

What would then be the neoliberal analogon to interpretation as the dominant mean of late socialist production? I  shall claim that this is (the procedure of) counting. Counting and  computing.

It is almost commonsensical knowledge that neoliberalism as singular is obsessed with counting, with calculation and parametrization. Stock-markets being just the most prominent example. But its uneven geographical double no less revolves around the issue of counting and comparing, of  taking advantage thanks to different geographical conditions.

And like socialism has replaced fear as its social product with (arbitrary) interpretation, so neoliberalism succeeded in replacing its doctrine of shock with abstract procedures of counting and computing.  Socialism’s strategy to make itself immune or stable was to feed back the theory of double-state into the loop, while neoliberalism’s strategy to make itself permament consists in applying the procedure of discerning, counting and computing onto itself. One type of neoliberalism against the other, ad infinitum.

In socialism intellectual engagement has passed the way from dissidency to decadency, thanks to the social product itself that has become intellectual and less to some subjective reasons regarding those in need to question the existing state of affairs. Social critique seems obsolete in times of communication-overload and political in-action.

The double of neoliberalism has come the same way, by other means. It constantly produces something, a new unheard-of political reality that stalls any political action and leaves no room for dissent.

A lesson drawn from late socialism would be to desist from counting and identifying neoliberalism(s) since that will just feed back into the existing loop of stalled politics.

To fight neoliberalism means to fight its singular plural, at once. It means to fight for a reality that cannot be computed and cannot be accounted for.

[written on occasion of Tirana Biennale 2009]

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