On the Importance of a Strong Work Ethic: Etho-politics in Serbia

serbiaDuring a recent visit to Slovenia, Serbia’s Prime Minister Vucic made a statement on a theme that has come to figure prominently in many of his public speeches and press statements – that of the importance of a strong work ethic. Speaking of his government’s economic reforms and foreign policy measures, Vucic poignantly argued for the respect and nobleness of hard work. “When faced with an easy and hard path, most countries and people always take the easy path, but those that take the hard path will always be more respected,” he stated.[i] Referring to the difficult decisions that Serbia has taken under his leadership to implement a strict austerity programme, Vucic stated that by way of his government’s economic reforms, Serbia would finally be a “healthy country.”[ii]

Similarly, in a controversial letter published this summer, Vucic wrote of the importance of hard work in making Serbia a “normal country.” He stated that only though work could things get better in Serbia and that work must be “our last experiment and our last try.”[iii] In the letter, he made a number of scathing remarks concerning Serbian culture and mentality, particularly the Serbian propensity to work little, complain a lot and ask to be paid for everything, even for that which was not earned. He defined Serbia as “eternally dividend into two, undefined, a camp, whose members are spinning around in some bizarre marry-go round, whose movements are hard to understand and even harder to predict…”[iv] He implied or stated that Serbians were resistant to change, stubborn, lazy, irresponsible, and punished individual efforts to change things. Within this context, hard work was needed to break the cycle. “Work must be our main ideology,” Vucic stated, “the foundation of our faith, our main pledge for all and everyone’s future.”[v]

These statements are problematic in a number of respects. First, the claims concerning Serbian mentality betray a dangerous essentialization of culture which has been used throughout history (some of it quiet recent) to justify imperialist ventures and repressive “civilizing missions”. Moreover, claims that Serbs are lazy, stubborn, irresponsible, conveniently reifies social traits, without placing them within the broader spectrum of social relations that are constitutive of those behaviours. Second, locating Serbia’s problems within voluntarist relations ignores the structural impediments, both global and national, that worked to complicate if not actively undermine more productive efforts at reform. Perhaps it is not the absence of hard work, but the presence of progressive de-industrialization and dubious privatization that has undermined economic growth? Perhaps it is the little regulated presence of global capital that has undermined the tax base of the Serbian state and led to the deterioration of social services, and not the work of lazy doctors and unmotivated teachers?

All these points are worthy of further exploration and analysis. I, however, would like to focus my attention on the political rationalities that underlie Vucic’s emphasis on the importance of hard work. I do this in the hopes of elucidating the etho-politics that is in no way new or specific to Serbia, but that is increasingly consolidating itself there and linking Serbia with global governmentality[vi] regimes. This etho-politics seeks to, among other things, fame economic questions in moral terms, thereby de-politicizing the government’s economic programmes and priorities.

Nikolas Rose first coined the term etho-politics to explain the politics of New Labour’s “Third Way” in the United Kingdom. For him, etho-politics characterizes the ways in which features of human individual and collective existence – sentiments, moral nature, values and beliefs – have come to provide the medium through which the self-government of autonomous individuals was to be connected with the imperatives of good government (such as economic growth, security, and civic stability).[vii] “Etho-politics seeks to act upon individual conduct by acting upon the forces thought to shape the values, beliefs, moralities that themselves are thought to determine the everyday choices that human beings make as to how they lead their lives.”[viii] In contrast to the state intervention of the welfare state, etho-politics seek to mobilize and organize autonomous individuals by invoking individual morality and community responsibility. According to Rose, etho-politics is sustained through a communitarianism that promises a new moral contract between an enabling (or limited) state and responsible citizens.[ix] The problems to be addressed within this context are rendered intelligible in ethical terms of dependency, idleness, irresponsibility.[x] The virtues espoused to combat them are those of a ‘civic religion’ of respectability, moderation, charity, probity, and fidelity.[xi]

The striking feature of Vucic’s statements is how closely they parallel the discourse of etho-politics – both Serbia’s problems and the solutions to them are framed in terms of ethos: the belief systems, values and imperatives of the Serbian people. Serbia is not a “normal” country, not because of the disintegration of the Serbian state following the decade of civil war, decline in institutional capacity, and incentives for corruption, but because its people do not have the moral and ethical fibres to construct a “healthy” country – to work hard, make decisions and follow-though on them. Central to his framings are binary distinctions between the good and the bad, right and wrong that correspond to a clear moral hierarchy: the irresponsible, lazy, underserving and the responsible, hard working and deserving. To simply read his statements as a cultural critique is to miss a political program that works to mobilize the “improved” Serbian ethos into more fully and successfully integrated capitalist social relations and a program in which individual responsibility is emphasized at the expense of the state’s responsibility to its citizens.

Within the context of etho-politics, hard work and the development of a strong work ethic are the primary means through which Serbia can become a “healthy” and “normal” country. Only thought work, hard work, can Serbs be considered responsible members of their society and by implication, Serbia accepted as a member of the international community. (The dual object of reform is of course both the individual Serb and Serbia as an international entity.) A moral order must be established, premised on each doing his/her bit: Serbia must privatize state assets, make the labour market more flexible, become a desirable destination for investment and its citizens must accommodate the changes and cease the opportunities provided by working hard and acting responsibly.

Now, Serbs are not being called to develop a strong work ethic, to endure the painful austerity reforms, simply because it is in their individual interest to do so. Rather, Serbs must do so for their country, so that collectively Serbs can live better in the future. Therefore, the civic element of etho-politics comes in as the legitimating component of the reform program – the responsibility each individual has to one’s community is called upon to legitimate the austerity package. This mess is our creation and we are all in this together. As one is recognized as a member of the civic community to the extent that he or she successfully adopts the work ethic, the basis of citizenship, the lines of inclusion and exclusion, increasingly become centered around productive economic activity. That is why as part of the new labour law, welfare benefits are conditional on unpaid work in the local council. And it is in this context that Vucic can suggest that Serbs contemplating suicide ought to try working.[xii]

The recognition of etho-politics is important to all those opposing the government’s austerity measures, measures that have placed a disproportionate burden on the social sector. As Rose notes, etho-politics produces an “economics without enemies – without fundamental conflicts of interests or incompatibilities between the pursuit of private profit and pursuit of the personal advancement of each and the public good for all.”[xiii] In other words, etho-politics sees the pursuit of private profit as entirely compatible with the pursuit of the common good. The “problem” is no longer the individual who accumulates wealth at the expense of the public interest, but the idle individual who does not participate in the process of accumulation.

In framing problems and solutions in ethical terms, economic questions become questions of ethos rather than politics. Political struggles over competing visions of the good are papered over by an overriding concern to instil a sense of obligation, duty and moral responsibility among Serbian citizens. Framing economic questions in terms of morality and communal responsibility downplays questions over who exactly will live better, how much better and the different degrees of sacrifice entailed by the reforms. Overcoming an “economics without enemies” requires the re-appropriation of economic questions within the domain of political struggle and placing the contradictions between the private and the public at the center of political debate. Resistance must be both local as well as transnational, as etho-politics forms part of a broader governmentality of the neoliberal age.

 Dunja Apostolov is a social science researcher studying the political economies of post-Yugoslav spaces.  She draws her intellectual inspiration from the intermingling of disciplines found in political sociology and postcolonial/decolonial studies, among others.

[i] “Vucic: Serbia Will be a Healthy Country, Must Exand Markets,” Politika, February 21, 2015, accessed on February 23, 2015, http://www.politika.rs/rubrike/dogadjaji-dana/Vucic-Srbija-ce-biti-zdrava-zemljamora-da-prosiri-trziste.lt.html.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] “Vucic: Pressing Need for the Country to Change Itself.” Radio Television Serbia, July 4, 2014, accessed on July 4,2014, http://www.rts.rs/page/stories/sr/story/9/Politika/1640948/Vu%C4%8Di%C4%87%3A+Nasu%C5%A1na+potreba+zemlje+da+se+promeni.html.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] In this context, I use the term governmentality (developed by Foucault) to refer to a particular understanding of government – as an activity aiming to shape, guide or affect the conduct of other persons and oneself.

[vii] Nikolas Rose, “Inventiveness in Politics,” Economy and Society 28(3) (1999):477.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid., 479.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Aleksandar Vuci, “My Answer to Them,” Serbian Progressive Party, March 2, 2015, accessed on March 2, 2015, http://www.sns.org.rs/lat/novosti/vesti/aleksandar-vucic-moj-odgovor-njima.

[xiii] Rose, 483.


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