This article comprises a report on the proceedings of a conference held in Tbilisi, Georgia on 11-14 October 2018, co-organized by a number of foundations as part of the Transnational Institute’s New Politics project.
In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, the world finds itself in a new era of political turmoil. If the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 were celebrated as the beginning of a global neoliberal era, the contradictions set in place by this reconfiguration of global capitalism are breaking open today in the form of economic and social crises, realignments of power alliances, and conflicts that destroy the coherence of previous state and intra-state systems, as well as in the form of war, mass migration, and the ongoing effects and imminent threats of climate change. Under these conditions, social and political movements of right and left colours have risen across the globe, producing new ways and infrastructures of political thought and action.
As part of a global process of dialogue initiated by TNI’s New Politics Project, the regional New Politics meeting in Tbilisi invited scholars and activists from post-socialist countries to share their understanding of the region’s current transformation within the present global situation, exchange their experiences of political and social organizing, and discuss possibilities of collaboration.The meeting relied on the scholarly and activist experience produced in the region during the post-socialist decades, and connect with the various streams of intellectual-political thought, action and collaboration that this generation of scholars and activists have built out in the region and beyond.
Context and organizers
The meeting was co-organized by the New Politics project at Transnational Institute (TNI), Georgian independent union Solidarity Network, the Institute for Political Ecology (IPE) from Croatia, and the South Caucasus office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
The meeting’s agenda was shaped by the perspective and previous work of several organizations.
Solidarity Network, the host of the event, is an independent alternative trade union based in Tbilisi, Georgia, which aims to develop a workers’ movement towards militant left politics in a country dominated by neoliberal hegemony. Founded recently, the union has around 300 members, from various sectors. It is their explicit aim to build community among members, and rely on member participation instead of only expertise. Solidarity Network provided not only the space, but also the atmosphere of the meeting, placing the emphasis on concrete applications of political and theoretical considerations.
New Politics is an open and participative framework for collective thinking, initiated by TNI. It encourages creative collaboration aimed at the future, in a moment when most of our understanding of ongoing transformations still tends to be lagging behind, informed by concepts and political strategies rooted in social and infrastructural conditions of the past. New Politics Platform is a global and open initiative that aims at stimulating innovative thinking around the design and expansion of counter-hegemonic alternatives around the world, focusing on the identities and roles of social movements, civic coalitions and political parties operating from local to global levels in forging new democratic and emancipatory politics and policies. The aim of connecting Eastern European regional debates to global progressive perspectives was an important emphasis at the meeting, and can hopefully developed further within the space provided by New Politics.
IPE is a think tank based in Zagreb, Croatia, organizing research, exchange, publishing and education in the field of environmental and social justice. Collaborating with other civic and political organizations, it plays an organic role as a “thinking unit” within the local and regional progressive scenes. One central aim of IPE’s work is to build an epistemic community as a political community. Therefore, along daily research and education work around topics such as climate justice or the democratization of public services, it regularly organizes the Green Academy, an event that serves as a meeting and debating space for regional activists, with talks and workshops held also by international thinkers and organizers. The Green Academy’s focus on bringing together green and left perspectives, as well as its expertise in organizing horizontal debates that focus the lens of research and theory on political action, were key to the agenda of the meeting.
Finally, the experience of the regional English language publication LeftEast was also discussed as an important context for the meeting. LeftEast was founded in 2012 by a new wave of left intellectuals and activists from the region. At the basis of LeftEast collaborations lies the experience that while history, politics, social structures, and intellectual thought in the region share much in common, these connections are hard to be made explicit and put to work in real collaborations, due to the hegemonic dominance of West-East epistemic connections over East-East ones. LeftEast has been operating an online publication and organizing summer meetings since 2012 in order to bring the region’s struggles closer to each other. It creates a space where they can recognize themselves as the type of struggles that arise from an East European position, facilitates collaborations, and makes them visible internationally. LeftEast’s perspective on intra-regional dialogue as necessary for a globally progressive politics, its criticism of the Western epistemic hegemony that obstructs local thought on local conditions in the region, as well as its history in organizing regional encounters were also at the base of the meeting – with several participants having already published on LeftEast, edited it, or participated at its summer meetings.
Focus and participants
Participants for the workshop came from all around Eastern Europe. Despite the smaller scale of the workshop, organizers put an emphasis on trying to invite organizations from as many countries as possible, and cover a wide range of political orientations and organizational forms, in order to avoid sectarianism. In terms of organizations’ profiles, the following thematic foci were prioritized:
– organizations working on unions, cooperatives, and solidarity economy,
– urban commons and alternative spaces,
– feminism and the politics of reproduction,
– intellectual groups producing original local diagnoses and proposals for alternatives,
– media initiatives producing alternatives for political communication in a context of liberal and right-wing hegemony, the decline of traditional journalism, and the rise of social media and fake news.
For a full list of names, profiles and contacts of the organizations represented at the meeting, see the box below.
Public Broadcasters’ Trade Union, Georgia
New union funded by public broadcasting workers in collaboration with Solidarity Network, after recent conflicts with the management.
Commons Journal of Social Criticism, Ukraine
Commons is a journal of critical social analysis, active since 2009. On its online site, it publishes reviewed articles as well as interviews and reports on current events. In printed issues, it produces thematic issues devoted to specific socio-economic problems or topical political processes. The journal’s perspective is defined by an anti-capitalist and internationalist stance.
Social Movement is an NGO, with the ambitions to turn into a party at a later stage. It was founded in 2015, after the EuroMaidan protests. At the founding conference, participants voiced expectations of politicization of society because of war and crisis, which would facilitate the left direction of politics. Instead, post-Maidan events showed a popularization and legitimation of the right, including extreme right violence. Social Movement works to thematize post-Maidan processes from a class perspective, and open the space for the visibility of a left alternative.
The Ukraine Solidarity Campaign is a platform in the UK that organizes solidarity and provides information in support of Ukrainian socialists and trade unionists, in the interest of workers and democracy, against imperialist intervention and national chauvinism. It seeks to coordinate socialist and labour movement organizations who agree on this task, and builds direct links with the independent socialists and the labour movements in Ukraine.
BRID (Organization for Workers’ Initiative and and Democratization), Croatia
BRID is an organization founded in 2012 by student activists who wished to collaborate with unions and workers towards workers’ democracy. One of BRID’s projects is an online user free database of workers’ struggles in the 90s, which provides a glimpse into position of labour and capital during the civil war in Yugoslavia and privatization process when the dominant narrative was built around the ethnic conflict of Serbs and Croats. In their work, BRID connects research and education to fieldwork activities where they collaborate with workers, unions, right to city, environmentalist and other NGOs on concrete projects.
Russian Socialist Movement, Russia
The Russian Socialist Movement has been founded in 2011, as an initiative to bring together existing fragments of the left, and create a broad popular movement. In the present moment of dissatisfaction and protests surrounding the pension reform, it works to connect protests to left organizations and unions, create local activity in various points of the country. In a situation where previous liberal or depoliticized stances towards the regime are breaking down (“now people realize that they are left”) it strives to help crystallize the existing dissatisfaction in the form of explicit left agendas.
Emma Social Center, Lithuania
Emma is a social center operated by a feminist collective in Kaunas, Lithuania. Its name was chosen after Emma Goldman, who lived in Kaunas in her youth. The collective emerged from a workers’ solidarity network formed during the protests against Lithuania’s new labor law in 2016. Presently, Emma is organizing an independent labor union with a particular focus on precarious female labor. In summer 2018, they also organized an Eastern European gathering of feminists – in 2019, it will be followed by a larger conference.
Macaz Cooperative, Romania
Macaz is a bar and an independent theatre in Bucharest, operated by an anarchist collective strongly embedded in local political organizing. Macaz serves as a workplace where members produce their daily livelihood by self-organized labor. The self-organized political theatre that works in the space represents a strong new current of political theatre in Romania, combining research, education and collaboration with the public towards the creation of a new political understanding of social processes. Macaz also provides the space for political meetings, public events and reading groups for local social movements (it also contains an Alternative Library).
FCDL is a collaboration for grassroots organization against housing injustice, created by people who experienced evictions in Bucharest, in alliance with left activists. It fights to stop the privatization of public housing, and create conditions for taking housing property out of the market. FCDL works together with similar housing movement groups in Romania, and is part of the European Coalition for Housing rights.
GAP (Gazette for Political Art), Romania
The Gazette for Political Art is a publication that puts art in the service of political organization. Along articles and education activities on political art, it publishes print issues distributed for free, which focus on key social and political problems (like migration or housing), based on texts by people affected by those problems.
TEK (College for Advanced Studies in Social Theory), Hungary
TEK is a college of the Corvinus University in Budapest, operating since 1981 as a college focusing on critical social theory. Since 1985, it produces the critical scholarly journal Fordulat. Besides learning and education activities, it organizes open events that shape critical discussions on social and political issues. Its members have created some of the most important civil society organizations that are active today in Hungary.
Helyzet is an autonomous research collective that produces sanalysis of contemporary processes in Hungarian society from the perspective of long-term world-economic and geopolitical integration.
Metacooperative is a facilitation group for a broader initiative to build solidarity economy ecosystems in Hungary. In collaboration with over 20 solidarity economy initiatives across the country, it works presently to map resources that can be shared across the network, to understand the conditions of establishing an integral cooperative locally, and to build union-coop collaborations in the field of solidarity economy.
Mérce is an independent left news site in Hungary. Building on the energy of anti-government protests since 2010, with an explicit focus on left thematic like social rights and workers’ struggles, and in parallel with the government’s destruction of opposition media, by today Mérce became one of the most important independent political news sites, and the major one that provides a left perspective. Tett is a radical left publication that works as part of Mérce.
CPE (Center for Politics and Emancipation), Serbia
CPE was established in Belgrade in 2011 with the overall aim to continually provide framework for the analyses and critical perspectives of the current socio-economic conditions and political situation, both in local and global context. Primary focus of CPE’s work is political education and research. Key activities undertaken by the CPE to confront the prevailing neoliberal ideology include different types of research, educational frameworks and public discussions. Its political school “Studies of Socialism” covers basic concepts of socialist theory, practical experiences and concrete political and economic proposals, with the aspiration to apply them to the specific local context of Serbian society. In that way, program of the school strives to introduce participants to the current debates central to rethinking socialist alternative today. Additionally, CPE organizes public debates and international conferences with a focus on left perspectives on ongoing processes. Since 2017 CPE has been a member organization of the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) initiative, a global network focusing on the working conditions and empowerment of workers in the garment and footwear industry. In 2018 CPE became an observer organization within the transform! Europe, the recognised political foundation corresponding to the Party of the European Left (EL).
Oktobar is an independent left space in Belgrade, Serbia. Up until 2013, there was no social or cultural center in Belgrade focused on providing left wing and progressive perspectives on different social phenomenon and serve as a gathering point for different individuals, collectives and organizations that make leftist scene in Belgrade in wider sense. Social center „Oktobar” has been established with the aim to create space for left and progressive collectives and individuals to provide critical analyses and perspectives of the current socio-economic conditions and political situation in local and global context, and confront dominant social values and policies of neoliberal system in our society. With that aim, we created Social center Oktobar, a left wing space for consolidation of left and progressive collectives and individuals, who wish to discuss and organize around contemporary social and economic issues. Key activities organized in social center Oktobar include public events such as discussions, seminars, workshops, exhibitions, reading groups, movie projections etc. with an overall aim to allow dissemination of left ideas in public sphere. Also, since university libraries had been depleted of left wing literature during last two decades, we initiated an open library as one of permanent activities in SC “Oktobar”. Additionally, “Oktobar” is used as a meeting place for left and progressive initiatives, organizations and individuals, in circumstances which ask for a quick response to the current social issues.
The Left Summit is an initiative to bring together left organizations, workers and activists to build social change towards democratic socialism.
Ministry of Space, Serbia
Ministry of Space was formed as the collective in 2011 with intention to activate different unused spaces through direct action and municipal negotiations. It further evolved into resource hub for local groups striving for spatial justice and a pillar of various Belgrade-based and national campaigns advocating for higher social impact and transparency of public property management. Parallel to that, other programs were developed, expanding organizational mission to encouraging and fostering citizens’ participation and mobilization in defining public interest in urban and spatial planning and urban resource management. In the last five years, the organization supported numerous groups to reverse planned changes of urban plans that would unmake urban fabric of their neighbourhoods. It also initiated, organized, and led multiple bottom-up struggles that address specific urban development or management of public goods, most notably the Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own (Ne davimo Beograd) which brought 25 thousand people on the streets in opposition to violent takeover of public land and finances for development of а private residency area in the city centre. Movement that was generated out of this struggle further took more active approach towards electoral politics with establishment of the citizens’ initiative for Belgrade election in March 2018. While movement became independent political platform, MoS decided to continue with the intention to 1) intensify production and dissemination of knowledge and creation of policies within different areas relevant for genuine democratization, focusing on the lower levels of governance; 2) nurturing local groups in their pursue of spatial justice, making a stronger bottom-up pressure for systematic change.
Center for Women’s Studies, Croatia
The Center for Women’s Studies is a non-institutional educational center based in Zagreb. It was founded by a group of feminists, theorists and scholars, peace activists and artists in 1995. The Centre provides an interdisciplinary program and expert knowledge on women’s issues and is a meeting point for academic discourse, artistic practice, activist engagement.
FEMATIK is a Marxist feminist group focusing on learning and education, that aims to introduce Marxist feminist perspectives into feminist debates in Croatia.
Slobodni Filozofski, Croatia
Slobodni Filozofski is a leftist portal that was created by the student occupations of 2009. Building on critical theory and analysis, it attempts to build a paradigm-shifting bridge beyond the liberal tradition into more elaborate materialist analyses. The portal also operates the TV show Promjena okvira / Reframing and YouTube channel SkriptaTV, where they publish talks and debates with a left perspective.
EnaBanda is a researchers’ collective in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Ajda Pistotnik, researcher at EnaBanda presented her work on international financial institutions’ role in Slovenian politics, the analysis of public debt, and the financialization of housing. Her focus is to connect the issue of financialization and debt to that of degrowth.
The Heinrich Böll Foundation is the political foundation of the German Green Party. Its South Caucasus Office supports programs and events particularly in the topics of ecology and sustainable development, democracy, conflict transformation, and feminism and gender democracy.
Collective for Social Interventions, Bulgaria
The Collective for Social Interventions is a research collective focusing on knowledge production for social action. Reorganized from the previous research and education project New Left Perspectives that operated the now defunct Xaspel Social Centre, the Collective conducts research and publication along issues of labour. One of their most recent studies focuses on precarious subcontracted labour and forms of resistance in the textile industry, security companies, and call centres. Another report studies labour conditions of migrant workers from Ukraine coming for seasonal work in the Bulgarian seaside during the summer. The Collective has also been active in the field of tax justice, recently publishing a policy paper exposing the grave flaws Bulgaria’s flat tax system and arguing for the re-introduction of progressive taxation. They work in close cooperation with the Solidary Bulgaria left labour collective, the dVersiacritical magazine, as well as with the Baricadanews portal (which also has English, Romanian, and Polish sister sites).
Razem is a left political party in Poland, funded in 2015. Its program is inspired by the Nordic model of Social Democracy. In Poland, it supports labour rights, opposes austerity, deregularization and privatization, has campaigned against TTIP and CETA, and against the ban on abortion. Since 2016, it collaborates with the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25).
Main discussion points
Since the meeting was mainly aimed for regional organizations to share their knowledge and experience with each other and with New Politics organizers, many of its panels focused explicitly on mapping local organizations’ contexts and work. However, the encounters of ideas, action, and political energy that were enabled by the meeting also produced intensive collective thought, new understandings of groups’ own position and potential, and also plans for new steps for collaboration.
1. Context – Eastern Europe in the present crisis
A significant part of the first day of the meeting was dedicated to groups sharing their understanding of the context they work in – the social and political situation in their respective countries, as it evolved from the dismantling of socialist structures to the various social and political crises associated with the present global turmoil. Despite its descriptive nature, this part of the discussion strongly contributed to the cognitive and emotional energy of the meeting, as it provided concrete historical material to thinking participants’ own situation as related to each other.
A semi-peripheral region strongly fragmented by ethnic divisions and the feuds of regional and global hegemons over its domination, Eastern Europe historically didn’t develop strong internal regional structures or a regional consciousness that would be similar to those of Latin America. After the fall of the Communist Bloc, the region’s reintegration into global capitalist structures implied not only the privatization and destruction of national economies, and their subordination to Western markets, but also a strong symbolic and epistemic subordination of knowledge production to Western models of social consciousness. The tools that have been produced for understanding the region since the regime change treat regional societies as single cases of backward development, the only cure for their pathologies being defined in catching up with Western models.
Today, as effects of social and geopolitical tensions of the current global capitalist crisis manifest in Eastern Europe, the region’s crises are still described as having to do with their improper performance in the catching-up task, and not with the crisis of a contemporary global system. Illiberalism, nationalism, social tensions arising from a growing pressure on labor, protests thematized by geopolitical tensions – such issues are presented, both internally and in Western comments, as results of a deficient transition. In this context, to produce an understanding of one’s present context as part of a global capitalist process, and produce relevant local answers to it in terms of a globally relevant left politics is an extremely severe task, which all of the organizations present at the meeting are facing. To share diagnoses across the region, recognize their common elements, and realize the abstraction potential inherent in their differences was a strong element of the meeting, creating both belonging and a capacity for a global perspective.
Beyond details relevant mostly for local collaborations, some points are worth mentioning also in a general report. The first is the fact that in each country, the transition from socialism constituted a major social shock, a crisis of its own, which coincided with a symbolic subordination to the West, and the installation of a historical narrative where one’s own society and social model is deemed inexistent and irrelevant as long as it does not successfully emulate Western development. Symbolic historical narratives had their material counterparts: foreign and local capital becoming the new heroes of capitalist transition, and organized labour being dispossessed and dismantled in the name of decommunization. Between the new misery brought on by new capitalist structures and the delegitimation of the old communist dictatorships, no model of social imagination was left standing that could focus and express labor’s interest. Unions’ struggles were delegitimized and made invisible so successfully, that today it requires new research to bring their memory back to the public.
Second, a common element in most diagnoses was a differentiation between foreign capital and local oligarchies, and the importance attributed to their changing structures of alliances. That these alliances relied on the dispossession of labor was common – but the way they related to external markets was not; differences between “nationalist” and “liberal” models of post-socialist development, and the political/geopolitical alliances associated with them were situated within that frame.
The aftermath of 2008 brought changes in the way such alliances were embedded in the global market. Resulting changes in local alliance structures contributed to the formation of new power structures, new regimes, or even new modes of geopolitical alignment. Combined with political expressions of social tensions resulting from the crisis – demonstration waves that appeared in the region since 2009 – this reorganization of capitalist alliances produced not only the very visible changes such as the war in Ukraine or the appearance of illiberal regimes in East Central Europe, but also deep-going transformations in several aspects of governance. In many countries, delegitimating effects of austerity are fought off by ideological emphasis on external threat – on geopolitical conflict, militarization, securitization, and anti-migrant propaganda. As a counterpart, images of internal enemies are created – campaigns against gay marriage, abortion, homeless people, or civil society. While different governments situate themselves on different sides of the nationalist-liberal debate, struggles for economic rights are equally silenced by references to the communist past.
The successful ideological incorporation of the post-2008 demonstration wave by existing political elites was a common thread in participants’ diagnoses. Many of the demonstrations started out with anti-austerity claims, and new left groups engaged with their organizing at various moments. However, in most cases left groups were not able to channel demonstrations’ energies in the direction of a left mass movement. Movements predominantly took a right-wing direction, either towards the imagined prospect of liberation (and compensation for the disillusionments of post-socialist transition) through a nationalist turn, or towards the idea of finally realizing а liberal transition through getting rid of the traces of communism within society – ideological frames reflecting existing relations of power in the structures of political mobilization. In the case of Slovenia or Poland, new party initiatives managed to channel some of the energy of the protests; the Slovenian New Left entered Parliament in 2014. However, the movement support behind both organizations tended to diminish in the following years.
In general, new left organizations express a sense of disillusionment in terms of the direct potential of post-2008 protests for a renewal of left politics in the region. However, as the pressure on labor in these countries keeps generating new types of tensions, new instances of protest are generated. With the experience and capacities built through the last decade, new left initiatives propose new forms of organizing in the face of contemporary tensions.
One new form of organization is related to the transnational wave of municipalization. Celebrated as a new progressive form of political organization in Europe and North America in recent years, municipalism has appeared as a tendency within Eastern Europe too – both as an organic one, embedded in existing structures of power and ideology, and as one with an explicit left message, tied to the new transnational municipalist movement. “Organic” municipalism appears in examples where the delegitimation of representative politics brings forth a wave of electoral victories of independent candidates on local elections, or in the form of new party initiatives that mix messages of self-management with those of nationalism. On the side of a left-oriented municipalism, we see the Polish municipalist movement that hosted the 2017 CEE Fearless Cities summit, or the cases of Ne da(vi)mo Belgrad and Zagreb je nas!, both of which combined collaborations between activist organizations with protest waves’ political energies to create municipalist platforms.
“Working in advance”, as participants put it, was another lesson organizations learned from previous demonstration waves. Following up issues and preparing tools for resistance before the crisis hits in – like in the case of water privatization in Belgrade – , or building new networks for organization in expectation of social tensions growing stronger are some of the examples.
Finally, turning to groundwork, and setting up basic structures of solidarity politics was probably the main common thread that bound the work of participant organizations together. Founding new unions and building mutually empowering collaborations with old ones, building cooperatives, setting up independent spaces for organization, producing an understanding of their context from their own perspective, and creating the media that has the capacity to serve a new movement were some of the types of ongoing work that were discussed at the meeting. As participants with longer experience in regional meetings concluded, the practical nature of discussions over this type of activist work brought a new type of collective energy compared to earlier meetings, fixing the focus on practical solutions and concrete ways of collaboration.
2. Building power, spaces, and knowledge
Discussions over ongoing work done by participant organizations took place during the workshop sessions as well as two public panels hosted by the University of Tbilisi.
The first public panel focused on projects that build innovative methods to defend and grow the power of commons in the region. In Hungary, Metacooperative is building collaborations between solidarity economy initiatives, in order to create a broader ecosystem that is capable of withholding and producing resources. As wages sink below the price of reproduction, households are threatened by debt traps, labor out migration grows to record rates, while the volume of informal labor necessary to compensate reproduction costs is also rising. In this situation, solidarity economy collaborations can shield individual households from financial and market extraction, and replace extractive relations with generative ones.
In Croatia, BRID (Organization for Workers’ Initiative and and Democratization) is building collaborations between research and advocacy workers and labor organizations. In the case of the occupied, self-managed factory ITAS, they are assisting the process of turning the enterprise into a worker-owned coop. BRID is an example of successful collaborations between new left activists and existing labor organizations, where the new left learns from, and builds on existing experience.
In Serbia, the collective Ministry of Space has been generating knowledge, practice and alliances in the field of urban commons, especially that of the protection of public space and services since 2011. They have played a key role in organizing mass demonstrations against the mega-investment Belgrade Waterfront, and in setting up the municipalist platform that built on the energy of the demonstrations. In Poland, the new left party Razem builds on the networks of the municipalist movement, and collaborates with it closely. In Romania, the autonomous bar and theatre Macaz creates the space for organizing and public events around political topics. Operating as a worker-owned cooperative, it also produces the livelihood for its members. Activist groups closely collaborating with Macaz organize grassroots action against housing injustice, and produce new spaces of debate by political art.
In recent years, a wave of attacks on reproductive rights and “gender ideology” can be felt across the region. In Croatia, renewed attacks on LGBT rights have been coupled with an anti-abortion campaign. In 2017, the Constitutional Court of Croatia ruled that the current law, dating back to Yugoslav legislation, which allows abortion on request, does not violate the constitution. However, it also instructed the Parliament to make a new law in two years time, in which preventive and educational measures will be included, aimed at making abortion exceptional. While the pressure of the anti-abortion campaign constitutes a main challenge for the feminist movement in Croatia today, differences remain between liberal and left approaches. The latter emphasize that the transition from socialism to capitalism shifted reproductive costs from public systems to the private sphere and on women’s shoulders. In that context, to fight for abortion as a right in the present system would only mean an access for economically privileged women. Instead, the question of general access to healthcare also needs to be tackled.
In Hungary, campaigns against migration and against feminism are parts of a similar conservative political line. As the conservative regime pressed wages below reproductive costs, a subsequent wave of еmigration created a crisis of labor supply. Since campaigns against migration constitute the main ideological tool of the regime in face of growing internal social tensions, fulfilling labor demand by immigrant labor is a limited option. Pro-natalist policies are one of the logical results, combined with campaigns against “gender ideology”. In the ideologically staged conflict between pro-natalist and “gender ideology”, government attacks on issues of identity politics like transgender toilets help to keep a silence about the increasing structural burden placed on the shoulders of women workers and housewives.
In Bulgaria, a similar situation evolved in an intense and grotesquely distorted debate regarding the so-called Istanbul Convention, which resulted in the convention not being ratified by parliament and declared unconstitutional by the constitutional court. Far-right parties in the ruling coalition have used the convention to sparkle fears against “gender ideology”, which have taken an inordinate role in public debate. At the same time, the issue of gender-based violence has been downplayed and the problems of women workers have been left ignored. Re-imagined “traditional values” seem to be gaining popularity in Bulgarian society, backed by churches, political actors, and media.
In Romania, the same international wave of conservative identity politics resulted in a campaign against LGBT rights, leading to a referendum on the constitutional definition of marriage in 2018. Since citizens saw the referendum as a political smokescreen by the Socialist party charged by corruption scandals, participation at the referendum was low, and the referendum failed. At the same time, the recognition of LGBT rights in the country is extremely low. In left groups’ experience, events around the referendum pushed the LGBT movement towards a more radical agenda, centered on the non-normative, dehumanized, disposable body, the peripheral body subjected to systemic violence. Instead of following a narrow model of gender identity politics, they claim a position based in an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist stance. This politics starts from the perspective of women’s, anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles, looks for its predecessors and allies in the global history of those struggles, and searches to politicize its actions by working within the immediate materiality of its relationships.
In Lithuania, too, the labor crisis produced by post-socialist integration is recently addressed by ideological campaigns proposing to solve the problem of unemployment and demographic crisis by turning women workers into housewives. Campaigns for a conservative definition of the family, pro-natalist propaganda and anti-abortion campaigns are coupled with visions of external threats and the idea of a need to strengthen the military protection of the nation. In this environment, the autonomous collective Emma organized a gathering of Eastern European feminists, to be followed by a regional conference in 2019. Similar to other participants, Lithuanian organizers expressed a strong discontent with neoliberal feminist models imported from Western Europe in the wave of NGOization that followed the regime change. These, they said, worked to invisibilize the suffering inherent in the local transformation of society, such as reproductive work being transferred to women, or the new types of class domination built out both in local labor relations, and in terms of subordination to Western capital. Also in terms of consciousness and emotions, imported forms of feminism worked to obstruct self-recognition and a self-placement within local situations. A new wave of criticism against these forms, shared by new left groups across the region, was combined in Lithuania with practical work on starting to unionize women (and other genders) in precarious employment. In this process, constructing organized power for action is coupled with learning from local experience, and creating alliances based in a collective process of consciousness-building, an organizational practice in line with the feminist tradition.
Labor and solidarity economy
During post-socialist transformation, parallel with the process of privatizations, mass unemployment, austerity packages, and the dismantling of social security systems, the issue of labor has been ousted from public debates dominated by newly formed capitalist fractions. In Georgia, the new independent union Solidarity Network faces the legacy of the neoliberal reforms performed by the Saakashvili government, a situation where entering existing trade unions has been made extremely hard, key sectors of public services, such as healthcare, have been privatized, and the idea of workers’ empowerment has been equalled with starting a personal business for decades. Building a non-sector union with a diverse membership, Solidarity Network places a strong emphasis on communication and direct action methods. Its achievements are often not due to legal struggle, but also to hosting protests at the door of an enterprise, or causing a communication scandal over cases of injustice. Besides creating new nodes where new entries become more dense, they also seek to collaborate with other unions, and any other organization or individual willing to form an alliance. In their operation, they seek to learn from workers’ experience, and seek to limit the power of expertise within the organization. Internal organization – in terms of self-education and community-building – also plays an important part.
Since 2018, Solidarity Network collaborates with a member of parliament – formerly Social Democrat, now independent – on a political campaign to link an initiative for a housing fund with pension policy. Pension (in its present form, a social aid for the elderly, less than 100 $), could be transformed into an important reserve for housing policy, if the new pension system would combine a pay-as-you-go model with redistribution. The pension fund could be connected to a housing fund that would build houses more cheaply, and provide accessible loans. The potential to combine cooperative solutions to housing with the rebuilding of social security systems appeared as a strong point of common interest among participants.
In Bulgaria, the Collective for Social Interventions works to produce knowledge and alliances particularly in the field of precarious work. Their cases from the areas of textile industry, security, call center services, and migrant seasonal work illustrate not only the vulnerable condition of local workers, or the state of national economies surviving on outsourcing, but also the vital link between the destruction of public services and labor vulnerability. To give one example: state hospitals and agencies in Bulgaria cannot hire a security guard directly, they need to do a contract with a private company for that. Similar connections between extraction mechanisms through market and state that meet again, in their effects, on the level of labor, were pointed out in the case of other countries. Further, building on a previous tax justice campaign, the collective produced a policy paper showing how Bulgaria’s flat tax system punishes working people to the benefit of the few very wealthy and corporations, leading to exceptionally high levels of inequality (by far highest in the EU). But on their part, the ideological arguments for low and flat taxes contribute to eroding public support of the principle of solidarity. The study is relevant to other flat tax countries, such as Georgia, Hungary, and Lithuania, which are in effect all taking part in a race to the tax bottom.
In Cluj, Romania, precarious workers in outsourced transnational call centers work, among others, as contact persons for people subject to eviction – as eviction services have been also externalized to the company operating the call center. In Hungary, Metacooperative seeks to build union-coop collaborations that can link unions’ present organizational power and resources to the construction of solidarity economy systems that can provide reproductive security to workers. When discussing potential strategies to link labor struggles to solidarity economy solutions, participants agreed that the level of households, where effects of social security and labor policies meet each other, is key both to understanding the situation, and to building alternatives.
The issue of debt, especially that of housing mortgages was raised as a key element in this respect. The privatization of housing, coupled with the privatization of financial systems, the liberalization of utilities, and the downward pressure on wages, resulted in a situation where, for most of the region’s population, the main route to solve housing needs became a housing mortgage. Mass indebtedness, mortgage failures and evictions are the results visible today. Understanding the risk inherent in the low capacity for debt service in the region, banks encouraged mutual guarantees. Consequently, debt is often dispersed over whole networks of households, grassroots solidarity serving as a further pool of extraction. Housing debt is a major factor of employee vulnerability, and is becoming a leading cause of work migration from the region. Contemplating links between social security systems, housing as a basic need, and the potential of union-coop alliances in building solidarity economy solutions, participants concluded that a bottom-up perspective on the the channels of extraction from the region is of key importance both to mapping their interconnections on the level of reproduction, and to finding potential spaces for action.
Communication and knowledge production
Building an understanding of post-socialist processes as part of global capitalist history, and inventing new means for communicating such ideas socially have been part of the same challenge faced by new left groups from the region. Discussing local solutions for this challenge soon turned into an exchange of ideas and experience on current processes of innovation, with aspects of different projects complementing each other.
One evident problem faced by all initiatives was that of dependence – while finding progressive funding can be hard, even such funding from Western organizations may limit the depth of local perspectives. Institutional affiliations, like in the case of academic research projects, also exert their own type of limitations. In the case of the Hungarian Working Group for Public Sociology “Helyzet”, the group set as its explicit aim to work autonomously from academic requirements, including both thematic restrictions due to current trends in respective fields, and formal but deep-going restrictions of academic careers, such as the formulation of research results in terms of individual authors’ individual contribution. Instead, “Helyzet” works as a research collective based in a broader collaboration with local movement groups, that sets as its aim the understanding of local social relations in terms of their embeddedness into global capitalist processes. Instead of single academic contributions, its main aim is to produce solid and useful knowledge that can help local political orientation.
Several regional groups combine knowledge production with publishing: the journals Commons in Ukraine or Fordulat in Hungary, the site Mašina in Serbia often publishes research by the editorial collective or their local allies. Publishing is combined with public events and debates, building out a broader sphere of education and discussion around the topics proposed. The Romanian Gazette for Political Art, working on a self-funded basis, hosts issues based on the needs of movement groups. Publishing stories from interviews with people affected by these issues, the Gazette uses political art as a tool to make space for social debates that existing structures of communication don’t make possible. Creating space for new types of debates is central to all initiatives – reports about publishing work often included the work of building out, or closely collaborating with, physical spaces that make it possible for movement groups to meet and discuss in person.
In Hungary, parallel with the destruction of opposition media, the independent news site Mérce, functioning solely based on crowdfunding, is becoming a main source of independent left voices in the public sphere. With an explicit decision to prioritize social and labor issues, Mérce works towards putting these issues back into the agenda of public debates. Constructing new knowledge, creating new discussions, and putting their perspectives on the agenda was a common thread in many groups’ work. In many cases, groups strive to harmonize research projects with those of communication and social dialogue, and link both to new collaborations with movement groups. Mašina’s research and campaign on the living wage, or BRID’s research and collaboration with unions on labor struggle in the 1990’s are two examples.
One further focal discussion point regarding communication projects was the question of representation and representativity. Do new communication projects directly benefit the people whose problems they speak about? Whose voice speaks in the new left media? The need to build and strengthen collaborations that can both socially embody and govern the new tools of knowledge production and communication was an aim emphasized by several participants.
Finally, the question of regional and global collaboration was also raised as an important one. While several initiatives for regional left media are in place (LeftEast, Bilten, Political Critique), a broader circulation of news, ideas and debates across the region is not happening yet. Participants expressed both the need and the ambition to create this circulation. Furthermore, a need to link regional left reflections to global debates has been expressed. On the one hand, this regarded the weak visibility of the region in global left debates – due to the historical reasons of the breakdown of old internationalist connections, and the dominance of liberal communication networks in the post-Cold War era – , leading to portrayals of regional processes, even in left international media, that are perceived as both incomplete and analytically false by local left groups. Perhaps more importantly, the same historical process that dismantled internationalist connections also deprived local public debates and social consciousness from an orientation in global processes. Building and re-building connections with left perspectives from other global regions, especially peripheral and semi-peripheral one, was another need strongly emphasized at the meeting.
3. Next steps
The workshop’s discussions defined several areas which participants saw as priority for further collaboration. Such were:
– building collaborations that look at the common reproductive aspect of various extraction channels;
– enhancing the communication between regional organizations regarding their practical work: to produce and circulate knowledge about how organizations work, share methods, focus on the process;
– keeping the conversation going in public space: to collaborate with regional left publications, New Politics, and look for global partnerships;
– sharing research: to discuss, publish and make visible the knowledge produced by new left groups in the region; look for global partnerships.
To concretize these plans, events for the next period (2018-2019) were identified as occasions where each stream of collaborations can be taken to the next level. Such occasions are:
– TBA: workshop in summer 2019 where Eastern European initiatives working on labor, solidarity economy and commons discuss opportunities for practical collaboration between their projects;
– April 2019: Third Euromediterranean Workers’ Economy meeting: Eastern European initiatives are invited to participate and start collaborations with Euromediterranean organizations;
– TBA: Eastern European feminism conference, Vilnius, Lithuania: several participants engaged to collaborate with members of the Emma Social Center in preparing the meeting, and participating at it;
– July 2019: 29th INURA (International Network for Urban Research and Action) meeting in Zagreb, with IPE as one of the organizers. Initiatives dealing with housing and urban commons are invited.
– TBA: summer 2019 meeting for autonomous spaces in Eastern Europe to discuss practical issues of financing, operation, sustainability, and regional collaborations;
– TBA: autumn 2019 workshop on new left diagnoses on the region, with an English publication as an outcome.
4. Further reading
In addition to planned events, participants established that besides the names, activity and contact of participant organizations, the report on the Tbilisi meeting will contain a section where links to articles related to participant organizations’ work are gathered. The following list contains links proposed by participants, and can be completed further.
Publications by the New Politics project
Reports on regional meetings organized by LeftEast between 2013-2017
Articles in Commons Journal of Social Criticism, Ukraine
Book launch video on the homepage of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign
Emma Social Center, Lithuania:
Gyvenimas per brangus (“Life is too expensive”, Leftist media platform)
Interview with Emma Collective
FCDL (Common Front for the Right to Housing), Romania:
Articles in GAP (Gazette for Political Art), Romania
Interview with Tibor Meszmann on Masina: Why Hungary’s new “slave law” pushes workers to the brink
Ministry of Space, Serbia
Ne da(vi)mo Beograd, Serbia
Slobodni Filozofski, Croatia
SkriptaTV, the youtube channel of Slobodni Filozofski, featuring videos in English or with English subtitles
Promjena okvira / Reframing playlist of episodes published online
Collective for Social Interventions, Bulgaria
Flat Tax or Democracy? For a Progressive Tax Reform in Bulgaria [to be published soon in English at Rosa Luxemburg Southeast Europe]
Agnes Gagyi is a social movements researcher focusing on Eastern European politics and social movements in long-term global historical perspective. She is member of the Working Group for Public Sociology “Helyzet” and a Contributing Editor at LeftEast.