Did Somebody Say Ethnic Partition? A Critique of Žižek on Kosovo and the Balkans (Concluding Part 4)

Notes from the LeftEast editors: This is the second out of four parts of the article of Dragan Plavšić, which offers a critique of the recent book of Slavoy Zizek and Agon Hamza “ “From Myth to Symptom: The Case of Kosovo”. The first part of the article can be read here, the second here, and the third here.

“Points of departure” for a Balkan Federation

Perhaps it is time to put Žižek aside lest we descend into despondency and despair! Perhaps it is time to think of better things! Let us go back, then, to Badiou’s altogether more promising alternative of a Balkan Federation and recall that this alternative has a long and honourable tradition among us, stretching back to the days of our very own Balkan Jacobin, Rigas Velestinlis. It is therefore fitting that Badiou, a Frenchman, calls us back to our own idea.

However, there is a potential problem here, one that often bedevils great ideas of this sort, for it is by no means clear how the idea of a Balkan Federation, in a given concrete situation, in the “here and now”, can be made to mean something feasible and viable.

In this context, Badiou has noted that, “In reality, politics must always find its point of departure in the concrete situation”.[37] If, then, the idea of a Balkan Federation is not to become an abstract, mechanical and unthinking response to the various national questions we face, we have to do the hard work of finding a suitable “point of departure” for it in each and every such question.[38] And this is best done via the medium of applying, in a concrete way that respects the specificity of the given question, the two key political stepping-stones to the Balkan Federation idea – anti-imperialism and anti-nationalism.

In order to try to give flesh to this still skeletal train of thought, let us take a relevant example, the case of Kosovo. How should the Serbian Left approach this much-contested case?

Given the history of oppression of the Kosovo Albanians by the Serbian state, and the current refusal of Serbia to recognise Kosovo’s independence, the only truly internationalist point of departure for the Serbian Left would be to defend Kosovo’s right to self-determination, that is, its right to independence and recognition as such. In the present circumstances, a clear and unambiguous break of this kind with Serbian nationalism is the best way for us to demonstrate our friendship with Kosovo Albanians.

But if such a demonstration of friendship is indeed to mean what it says, it follows that the Serbian Left must also reject the option of partitioning Kosovo between Albanians and Serbs, an option that some in our ruling class continue to favour, doubtless emboldened by Putin’s recent annexation of Crimea. For not only does the practice of partition pander to the nationalist myth that different nations cannot live together, Kosovo Albanians would rightly see it for what, in fact, it would be, a hostile act of Serbian aggression against them.

Now, it may seem a contradiction to some that an argument for a Balkan Federation proceeds here via the apparently labyrinthine route of a defence of the right to self-determination; on the face of it, after all, this is an argument for separation rather than unity.

But, although this may well be a paradox, it is not a contradiction, for the overriding question for the Serbian Left, in the “here and now”, is how to demonstrate, in the clearest, sharpest and most concrete fashion, its internationalist friendship with the Kosovo Albanians. Anything other than a defence of Kosovo’s right to be separate runs the grievous danger of falling back into oppressive Serbian nationalist ways of thinking.

It is therefore in this context that we should recall the insight of the Hungarian Marxist, György Lukács, who argued in his classic work, History and Class Consciousness, that the Left will “need both slogans together”, the slogan of self-determination “counterbalanced with the slogan of ‘belonging together’, of federation”.[39]

However, we cannot stop there, for the Balkan Federation idea is nothing if not an anti-imperialist one. And, of course, Kosovo and Serbia were, in 1999, the objects of an imperialist military campaign by the US via the medium of NATO, which led to the subsequent colonisation of Kosovo. Clearly, the Serbian Left has to address this crucial aspect of the Kosovo case too.

In 2008, the US-led West recognised Kosovo’s declaration of independence and now hopes to edge Serbia, slowly and patiently, towards eventually recognising Kosovo. A simple defence by the Serbian Left of Kosovo’s right to self-determination, without more – despite clearly countering Serbia’s nationalist pledge to never recognise Kosovo – is nevertheless insufficient in itself to carry the weight of the pressing need to oppose imperialism.

On the contrary, a simple defence of this kind without more would be seen as doing the West’s bidding and thus running the grave danger of condoning, instead of challenging, imperialist intervention in Kosovo and the Balkans as a whole. Is there a concrete way, therefore, of escaping the twin perils of Western imperialism’s recognition of Kosovo and Serbian nationalism’s refusal to do so?

There is, if the Serbian Left maintains that Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo should await the fulfilment of a clearly anti-imperialist condition.

Given NATO’s key geo-strategic role since the end of the Cold War in the expansion of US-led Western imperialism eastwards; given its key military role in US-led imperialist intervention in the Balkans, above all in 1999; given its establishment of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo and its continuing enforcement role there, which may become more, rather than less, important in the light of Ukrainian events; and given Serbia’s developing rapprochement with NATO, despite popular animosity to the alliance among Serbs, the most concretely appropriate condition the Serbian Left should argue for is that Serbia should tell the West it will recognise Kosovo as soon as the West agrees and guarantees that Serbia and Kosovo will be NATO-free zones, free of NATO troops, NATO bases and future NATO membership.

In this way, by challenging both imperialism and nationalism, we would hope to open up potential political space in which Kosovo Albanians would feel more able to overcome their current status as neo-colonial victim-objects and free themselves, not just of NATO, but of the daily economic and political indignities of EU-administered neo-imperial tutelage.

Given the dire state of things in Kosovo, time is pressing for Kosovo Albanians to recover their capacity to act as self-determining subjects, a capacity they demonstrated in the 1990s when they built their own parallel social structures free of Serbian state control. The Serbian Left must do all it can to help bring this day ever closer by opposing Serbia’s nationalist policy of enmity towards the Kosovo Albanians and counterposing to it a Balkan policy of friendship with them, a key part of which is the defence of their right to independence and recognition by Beograd.

This is the only way in which a joint struggle against imperialism, and the ravages of an unbridled capitalism among us both, can truly begin. And the more successfully this can be done, the more feasible will the idea of a Balkan Federation become too.[40]

Our principal purpose in explicating this example, then, has been to show that we do not have to go down Žižek’s road to partition; using his terminology, there is a “transnational” alternative that can directly and concretely address the national question as a whole.

By contrast, Žižek’s intention is to achieve “peaceful coexistence” and “logical order” by having us first go through the purgatory of partition. But as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions – when, that is, our means contradict our ends.

Conclusion: Žižek, the Bosnian Spring and the future of the Balkan Left

In the course of this article, we have seen two Žižeks, a pan-nationalist, partitionist Žižek and, somewhat hidden behind the iron wall of partition, a “transnational” Žižek who wants us all to unite against capital.

Earlier this year, during the workers’ revolt in Bosnia, it was this “transnational” Žižek who came to the fore. In February, Žižek wrote, “In one of the photos from the protests, we see the demonstrators waving three flags side by side: Bosnian, Serb, Croat, expressing the will to ignore ethnic differences. In short, we are dealing with a rebellion against nationalist elites: the people of Bosnia have finally understood who their true enemy is: not other ethnic groups, but their own leaders who pretend to protect them from others.”

He also noted that one of the protestors’ targets was the EU administration of Bosnia, adding that “the way the EU effectively governs entrenches partitions: it deals with nationalist elites as their privileged partners, mediating within them.” [41]

Under the pressure of popular revolt, it is rather heartening to see Žižek here silently jettison his partitionist self, together with his appreciation for the West’s role in partitioning Bosnia which, let us recall, he once recommended as a model for Kosovo. Indeed, it is tempting to see this silent jettisoning as implicit confirmation of our argument that Žižek’s partitionist and transnational selves are as incompatible as oil and water. The Bosnian Spring demonstrates with special clarity that partition and emancipatory politics are very different things.

However, familiar problems do remain. Despite his critique of EU rule in Bosnia, Žižek drew back from drawing any clearly anti-imperialist conclusions. On the contrary, he signed an Open Letter to the International Community in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which advised, “This…is not the moment to either disengage or intervene bluntly.”[42]

The Bosnian Spring is an event of huge significance for us in the Balkans for it confirms the potential that exists to transcend national divisions and thus to liberate ourselves from years of Western neo-colonial rule. As Badiou would have it, “…political action tests out the truth of what the collective is capable of achieving”, and in Bosnia we saw the beginnings of a testing of this truth, rooted in the one collective force, the working class, that is potentially willing and able to pass this test.[43]

For years now, this collective force has been as ignored as it has been oppressed by Bosnia’s neo-liberal elites, whether Western neo-colonial or nationalist. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that today’s Bosnia was built on the arrogant assumption that this collective force was a spent one. It is no accident, therefore, that its forcible re-emergence has shaken Bosnia to its very foundations.

At the same time, the Bosnian Spring shows up starkly why, at root, the West’s neo-imperial ‘multiethnicism’ has been such a dead letter, falling on deaf ears, not just in Bosnia but also in Kosovo. It has been, as Žižek and Hamza rightly note in From Myth to Symptom, an imposition from above, inextricably tied up with the arrogant and demeaning neo-colonial government of Balkan ‘primitives’ and the impoverishing reign of neo-liberal capital.

By contrast, the Bosnian Spring was a revolt from below, whose internationalism was as spontaneous as the West’s ‘multiethnicism’ was forced, for all Bosnians have been victims, regardless of ethnicity, of neo-colonialism, nationalism and neo-liberalism. It is here, at last, that anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist internationalism can begin to mean something again.

Nevertheless, there are huge problems ahead for Bosnia, and there will be huge temptations to settle back into old ways of doing things, foremost among them the sleazy game of partitionist politics manipulated by the neo-colonial Office of the absurdly named High Representative.

The Balkan Left will have to remain faithful to the core spirit of the Bosnian Spring, for sure, but it will also have to take that spirit to its logical conclusion, by looking for concrete ways of making the idea of a Balkan Federation a feasible one. In this way, we can begin the difficult task of “integrat[ing] the most extensive divergences and greatly limit[ing] the power of identity.”[44]

All of which brings us to the final question that needs to be asked of Žižek: in the future ebb and flow of events, will he help the Balkan Left in its struggle to test out the truth of what the collective can achieve, not just in Bosnia or Kosovo, but across the Balkans as a whole?

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and is the co-editor, with Andreja Živković, of The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915, London, 2003.

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[37] Ethics, op.cit., p.140. We do not claim that Badiou would agree with the specific argument that follows; he may well not. Instead, we argue that this is, in our opinion, the most concretely effective way, in present circumstances, of achieving our common goal of a Balkan Federation.

[38] The failure to do this is one of the central criticisms we have made of the admirable work of the Balkan anarchist, Andrej Grubačić. Part of our 2007 debate was extracted in his Don’t Mourn, Balkanize!: Essays After Yugoslavia, Oakland CA, PM Press, 2010. The full debate is available at http://zcomm.org/debating-balkans-kosovo/. It is here that we also criticised Noam Chomsky’s support for partitioning Kosovo (see note 21 in Part 2).

[39] History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London, Merlin Press, 1971, p.276, originally published in 1923, before Lukács descended into Stalinism.

[40] An extended version of this argument can be found in Dragan Plavšić, ‘The Kosovo Question: A New Way Forward from the Serbian Left’, 21.06.2013, available at http://www.criticatac.ro/lefteast/the-kosovo-question-a-new-way-forward-from-the-serbian-left/

[41] ‘Anger in Bosnia, but this time the people can read their leaders’ ethnic lies’, 10.02.14, available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/10/anger-bosnia-ethnic-lies-protesters-bosnian-serb-croat

[42] ‘An open letter to the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina’, 14.02.14, available at http://www.criticatac.ro/lefteast/an-open-letter-international-community-in-bosnia/ which should be contrasted with ‘Time to end western meddling in Bosnia’, 03.03.14, available at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/03/end-western-meddling-bosnia

[43] In Praise of Love, London, Serpent’s Tail, 2012, p.53, although, it should be said, Badiou refuses to tie universalism to class. In History and Class Consciousness, op.cit., Lukács argued, rightly in our view, that universalism has to be mediated by the key social force of our capitalist times, the proletariat.

[44] In Praise of Love, op.cit., p.63

 

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