Preface from the author’s new book in English “The populism Serbian Way”. Download the book!
Finally, one thing in which the Balkans have had an advantage over Europe! Populism. Ever since that word entered general circulation, I have been getting ready to proclaim Serbia, and perhaps the entire Balkans, the vanguard of populism. To show that even we excel in something, that even we can explain to someone what’s waiting for them, what you – latecomers – have to expect, and how you might proceed!
The beginning of populism in Serbia dates from the early 1870s, from the populist socialism of Svetozar Marković and the radicalism of Nikola Pašić. After this, such regimes reproduced themselves, with very short intervals, in the course of the 20th century, through socialism, Milošević, all the way to Aleksandar Vučić. That is what gives me that superiority I mentioned at the beginning, because I have that know-how which you are just beginning to acquire.
What are the conclusions? Populism is not a codified ideology, it can be right-wing or left-wing, but its key characteristic is collectivist emotion which sucks in every individual, which crushes every pluralism. A populist movement always speaks in the name of an entire people, and the possibility that you can remain outside and think differently is excluded. It is a deception – it originates from economic and social embitterment as a movement against the establishment, but it will, in the end, additionally impoverish the population and substantially enrich the élite. As identity politics, it is a monistic and essentialist call to be, as the Brexiteers would say, one’s own man in one’s own country. How familiar that sounds to us!
In populism, everything is clear; as a smart person once said – when the present is simple, the future is complicated. It is a closed system which sees everything outside as hostile, and because of that it bases homogenization on the production of conflict. The fences which it puts up are not so much against those others, or at least not at first; they are there because of “us”, to squeeze us more firmly, so make us feel warmer. Then we no longer have any need for institutions, nor for laws which stand unnecessarily in the way of the primordial needs of our nation. Institutions are therefore destroyed or “hijacked” by the authorities; they survive but with a completely changed content, misused, exploited and swindled. Populism is an auto-immune disease, says Brigitte Granville, in which a democracy produces forces which turn against it.
I well remember the time when that happened in Serbia after Milošević came to power at the end of the 1980s. Even now I get goose-bumps when I recall the euphoria, the trance, the huge feeling that somehow things had become easier for everyone, because suddenly everything was permitted, as if everybody had taken off very tight shoes. And that was what was most seductive and most dangerous: the feeling that everything was possible. How, then, to go against that? As in modern medicine – by prevention. By preventing it, at any cost, from coming to power in the first place. And if that has already happened, then prepare yourself for the fact that you must do everything over again from the beginning. After populism there is no repentance.
One of the ways to fight against populism is to get to know it and recognize it in time. It is true that it can take many different forms and that it is not a codified doctrine, but those writers who say that it has its own internal logic are correct. If we agree that it is not an ideology, then it would be most accurate to accept the definition of it being a way we think about politics. It is a model which can be dragged across mutually very distant political conceptions from which a system can be made.
Thus, right at the beginning, it is important to stress that populism is indeed a system, notwithstanding that it derives its greatest support by presenting itself precisely as anti-systemic. Its rhetoric is marked by one prefix: anti. It presents itself as anti-urbanist, anti-modernizing, anti-immigrant, anti-capitalist, anti-individualistic, anti-Semitic, anti-communist… But herein lies one of its biggest paradoxes – albeit showing itself as “anti”, as rebellious, it is in fact a very firm system, authoritarian in its very essence. It swallows up all before it, depositing its “credo” over everything. It annuls institutions, tramples over laws, alters collective memory, constructs a new identity for a nation, and pokes its nose into the private affairs of its citizens.
For this reason, this book contains texts covering a wide range of themes. The aim is precisely to show how the different forms of populism, separated at different times by an entire century, function in a very similar way, destroying all before them. These texts discuss how populist systems annul institutions and procedures which, in full view of their contemporaries, sink into quicksand. This is a very important characteristic of populism, because it retains democratic and parliamentary institutions, laws and procedures, but fills them in their entirety with its own content, thereby essentially annulling them.
That is possible thanks to the obligatory characteristics which all populisms display, in the first place thanks to anti-individualism and anti-pluralism, which, for populism, make a people and a society into monoliths. And if a people is a monolith then there is no space for any “other”. This book therefore includes a chapter on the political use of the zadruga (i.e. cooperative, extended family) in Serbian political history, because that traditional form of social organization has for more than a hundred years been seen as an ideal one, precisely because of its collectivism, egalitarianism and the complete control which it makes possible.
Although the chapter on the urbanization of Belgrade could, at first glance, appear to differ from other themes in this book, it turns out that it is in fact the key one. The city is a fixation of every populism, both left-wing and right. The city is the enemy. In it can be seen the social elite and establishment against which populism is rising up, but also visible is the “alienated” part of society which has lost its national identity, and fallen away from the nation. For that reason, urban history is rightly an important litmus test for studying the relationship between society and politics, because the streets of the city also reveal what is unspoken. The same can be said of the attitude towards the most sensitive parts of society, such as women and children. Patriarchalism is a key ingredient of nationalist populism, which sees in women’s liberation the destruction of the desirable traditional society, and for this reason the position of women is one of the most reliable measures of the degree of modernization of a society.
The second part of the book is devoted to research into historical memory. Memory is “applied history”, the way in which the present chooses necessary content from the past in order to make itself look better. In that, of course, the Serbian case is neither new nor unique. But what makes it interesting is the fact that, at the turn of the 21st century in Yugoslavia and Serbia, there were several dramatic changes of regime, that these took place over a short period of time, and that, for historians, this has provided a true laboratory for research into rapid changes in memory. As someone put it – our past has often been more uncertain than our future. Analyses of memory are important also because historical awareness comprises an important ingredient for the construction of national identity, which is the obsession of every populism, particularly of the right-wing kind. Thus, changes in the model of memory speak not only of the past itself but of the present.
For this reason, the entire second half of this book is devoted to memory, as one of the populist symptoms. Along with that, analyses of memory also show the consequences of populism, because the Yugoslav wars were created precisely with the help of changes to the historical matrix. From the moment when the revision of memory began in the 1980s, it was clear that the aim was a change in relations between the Yugoslav peoples by tampering with the states and borders between the republics which comprised Yugoslavia. Memory served as a tool for the psychological preparation for war. And when the war was over, the arguments which had underpinned it returned to the sphere of memory – history became a continuation of the war by other means. It is here, simmering quietly on the back burner. Like it’s waiting for the next opportunity.
As can be seen in the bibliographical notes at the end of the book, almost all the texts have previously been published in periodicals and anthologies. I am grateful to Svetlana Lukić and Svetlana Vuković for their idea that it would be good to collect all these texts in a book to be published in English, so that Serbian examples could be offered to the public abroad. Thanks also to Professor Ulf Brunnbauer and Dr. Heidrun Hamersky of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies and the Graduiertenschule für Ost und Südosteuropastudien who enabled me to spend some time in the University of Regensburg, where, in its excellent library, I found books unobtainable in Belgrade.
I owe a particular debt of gratitude to the English-language translators. Not only because that task is exceptionally difficult, particularly when one needs to translate the 19th century formulations used by the majority of this book’s protagonists. That task also requires joint work during which I became friends with all of the translators. Aleksandar Bošković is truly a friend from “way back”, a pal from school, and I am grateful to him for translating a large number of my texts. I have enjoyed continual collaboration during recent years with Ivica Pavlović who has borne and endured everything heroically. Two of the texts were translated by members of the “Belgrade English” community – Esther G. Polenezer and John White. Thanks to them for being here, with us, and for, with such skill and passion, helping what we have to say reach an international readership.
This book arrives at least two years late in relation to the initial agreement with Peščanik, and I take this opportunity to offer my apologies again to Svetlana Lukić and Svetlana Vuković and thank them for their patience. However, it seems to me that, in this way, it has turned out quite well and that, sometimes, anything that one does not have to do today can indeed be left until tomorrow. I am not saying this to justify myself, for justification there is none. I say this because things on the global political scene have changed significantly since the time we began to discuss “The Book”. Arguments which we have been able to hear during the Brexit campaign and Trump’s election campaign, from Trump now that he’s in power, the Catalonia crisis… all these are events which have made newly urgent a re-examination of populism and its devastating consequences.
To us in Serbia, all these stories are too well-known – we have heard them so many times. They were first analysed by Nebojša Popov in his superb study Srpski populizam. Od marginalne do dominante pojave / Serbian populism. From a marginal phenomenon to a dominant one, which was published in the weekly magazine Vreme just when it needed to be – in 1993. The problem is that we can now follow these populist politics in the world’s most developed countries, the most urbane, the most literate, those with the biggest percentage of highly-educated people, founded on democratic traditions, enjoying the highest per capita income… According to sociological and political theory this neither could nor should have ever happened. Earlier, we Serbs were able to tell ourselves that everything which has happened to us was a result of our incurable backwardness, inability to modernize, refusal to change. But now, before our very eyes, Trump is destroying institutions and forcibly attempting to change laws; Catalonia is demolishing the Spanish Constitution and trying through a policy of fait-accompli to evade political struggle. Great Britain is “returning to itself”, whatever that may mean.
Thus this book, albeit belated, has arrived right on time. To present abroad the less well-known Serbian case and to deliver a warning – for it is not true that populism leads nowhere. It does lead somewhere. Right into catastrophe.
Belgrade, October 18, 2017
SERBIA – THE VANGUARD OF POPULISM
I POLITICS AND SOCIETY IN MODERN SERBIAN HISTORY
OIL ON WATER
IMAGINING THE ZADRUGA
Zadruga as a political inspiration to the Left and to the Right in Serbia, 1870-1945
Political institutions in Serbia at the end of the long 19th century
UNFINISHED CAPITAL – UNFINISHED STATE
How the modernization of Belgrade was prevented, 1890-1914
IN THE SHADOW OF THE “GRAND NARRATIVE”
The state of health of women and children in Serbia at the beginning of the 20th century
II CROSSED SWORDS OF MEMORY
NARRATIVE ON WWI AS THE ENERGY DRINK OF SERBIAN NATIONALISM
VALUE CHANGES IN THE INTERPRETATIONS OF HISTORY IN SERBIA
INVISIBLE VICTIMS OF THE HOLOCAUST
Swapping roles: perpetrators and victims in Serbian WWII memory
EXPLOSIVE DEVICE WITH A DELAYED EFFECT
Image of the wars of the nineties in Serbian history textbooks, 1993-2005