Throughout East-Central Europe during the Communist period, social movements were on the margins, repressed by the governments, declared illegal. The exception was Yugoslavia in the 1980s where the women’s movement, the peace movement, and other groups not only operated in the open but had some impact on public policy. This was particularly the case in Slovenia. In 1990, for instance, I was astonished to learn that 40 groups were working on the transformation of a military barracks in the middle of the capital Ljubljana into an alternative political and entertainment space.
But when I visited Ljubljana in the summer of that year, sociologist and social movement activist Tomaz Mastnak told me that I’d already missed the heyday of the social movements. Already by that time, political parties were occupying the public space, and Mastnak was lamenting the degeneration of the political discourse.
When I met with him again in Ljubljana in the summer of 2013, I asked him about the eclipse of the social movements at that time.
“We saw the marginalization of the movements,” he told me as we sat at one of Ljubljana’s many outdoor cafes in the downtown. “I believed at the time that they had ‘fulfilled their historical mission.’ They didn’t have much potential to continue to play an important role in politics because the political space had changed dramatically. All their activities were amateur, voluntary, and strictly independent, at least among the people I was working with. The groups I was involved with were not on the pay list of any services here or abroad. It was volunteer activity. The role of the moral element was big. People thought that they needed to do them because it was the right thing to do, not for career reasons.”
The historical mission was, of course, the transition of Slovenian society to some form of democratic rule. Social movements didn’t disappear from Slovenia. Some groups became professionalized, like the Peace Institute. Other voluntary organizations continued, particularly among the younger generation. But they no longer had the prominence or influence they enjoyed during that brief period in the 1980s.
Over the last 23 years, however, new social movements have emerged around the world to address economic equality (Occupy, the indignados), authoritarian rule (Arab Spring), and a range of civil rights issues (LGBT organizing). These social movements don’t have a common political agenda but they do share a skepticism toward political elites.
“Across the globe, from Chile to the United States, from Spain to Turkey, people are angry and fed up with the current political class,” Mastnak observed. “The global political class has lost its legitimacy. I don’t remember even in the worst years of the Communist period anything comparable in terms of the disdain, the hostility, or the disgust with politics. It’s very hard to expect that any new vision could come out of this political class. Even if it did come, it’s hard to imagine that the population, which has become so disillusioned with politics, would accept it.”
These reactions have not (yet) crystalized in a demand for new political structures. “There are mental shifts in the population about what they want and what they value, which are not necessarily articulated in organizational forms,” he continued. “In Egypt what we see now is a popular uprising against democracy, because democracy has become a system that is unaccountable to the electorate. The purest form of this unaccountable politics is the drone democracy of Obama. This involves secret decisions far beyond the reach of public oversight and that have life-and-death consequences for many people. We are unprepared to think about political and economic responses when democracy, the hegemonic model for the last 200 years, seems to be in deep difficulty.”
Mastnak has published an incisive book on how the history of anti-Turkish sentiment has shaped Europe’s understanding of itself. He has also served as the director of the UN’s Office of the Alliance of Civilizations. He now teaches at UC-Irvine. I asked him whether he would ever consider entering politics.
“Given my expertise, I think that what I could do, which was more important than sitting in an office in government or parliament, has been try to guard the political language,” he replied. “The political language was treated very badly these past 23 years. My parallel is with the grammarians in late antiquity after the Christian emperors took over and dissolved all the schools. They saw themselves as the guardians of the language. They succeeded. Much of what we think and speak is due to their efforts. They saw something very far away but essential.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was in Berlin.
Really? Was that just a coincidence?
It was not just a coincidence. I spent a lot of time then in the region, and it was a good time to travel around — as you remember yourself. For instance, I was in Prague for the meetings at the Magic Lantern Theater during the Velvet Revolution.
Were you there as an observer?
Yes. One of my memories, even after the Wall fell and the masses were going across the border into East Germany, I was turned back at the border by the German police. No one could believe that this could happen! There was no explanation. Perhaps it was because I had contacts with the GDR opposition. Once before I was not allowed to enter East Berlin from West Berlin — I was turned away at the border and they had to drive us back to the airport to fly us out. That was in 1988 or so. I remember the wide avenues in East Berlin at that time were all empty. It was a scary feeling. You didn’t see anyone, and you knew that you were being observed.
Yes, it was like a de Chirico painting — long streets with maybe only one person on them, usually running away. What impact did you think the fall of the Berlin Wall would have on Yugoslavia? Or were you just thinking about the German context?
We thought, those of us in social movements, about the democratic opposition as a movement across borders. Their success was our success. It was an exciting time. I don’t remember having any serious reflections on what it could mean for Yugoslavia. But it was a breakthrough. It was a vindication of the struggles of the previous decades, going back to 1953 in East Germany. But it was not a time when many people had time to reflect on the meaning of what was happening. There was also some democratic triumphalism involved. Soon afterwards, the weaknesses of the movements that triumphed with the fall of the Wall became clear. I’m not talking about secret agreements at a high level. But just looking at the moment where I was involved, there were many blind spots, and very soon those became clear. But still it was great to witness this historical moment.
I missed it. I left Poland in July 1989. I passed through Prague in August 1989, and nothing was happening. So I watched all the changes that happened in fall 1989 on TV. Then I returned to the region in March 1990. At the time I interviewed you, you were working on social movements. We talked about new social movements here in Slovenia and the relationship between these movements and the new political parties. When I was in Ljubljana in summer 1990, 40 groups alone were working on the conversion of the military barracks at Metelkova. It was such a small country and a small city, and yet there were so many civic groups. Some people here dismissed this by saying that the civil society scene had been much more vibrant before. Others agreed that it was quite remarkable. Did you see the marginalization of these new social movements and the emergence of new and different movements in the early 1990s?
We saw the marginalization of the movements. I believed at the time that they had “fulfilled their historical mission.” They didn’t have much potential to continue to play an important role in politics because the political space had changed dramatically. All their activities were amateur, voluntary, and strictly independent, at least among the people I was working with. The groups I was involved with were not on the pay list of any services here or abroad. It was volunteer activity. The role of the moral element was big. People thought that they needed to do them because it was the right thing to do, not for career reasons.
With the fall of the old regime, the political landscape changed. The marginalization of the movements was the result of the change not the cause of it. The policies from then on were going to be professional. People would soon become interested in politics in order to make a living. The people involved in the movements were for the most part incapable of doing this kind of political work, sitting in parliament and making compromises. And all kinds of people came to the forefront who had been completely silent during the period of democratic upheaval. Many of these people in Slovenia had their own vendettas to pursue or who felt that they had been victimized under the previous regime (the majority had not been). Anti-Communists came to the fore. Ironically in Slovenia, anti-Communism emerged after the fall of Communism. The social movements were not pro-Communist, but no one really cared about anti-Communism in that sense. It was irrelevant. We were alternative. We wanted to create new forms of political action. But new people came to politics who were bitter and hostile. Emigrants returned, quite a lot of them, and some of them had been collaborators with fascism. It became ugly.
There was this Ivan Kramberger, a politician. He was a humanitarian. He made some money and entered politics. He ran for president. He was a completely apolitical man, with no program. He had an ape on his arm. He was killed. They shot him.
Who shot him?
No one knows. He began to attract too much public attention and support. This was in the early 1990s. There were different stories depending on whether you were talking to followers of one party or another. It was a very bad sign. No one took the assassination very seriously either. It was just pushed aside. But it was a sign of the new realities. Life became very dangerous. Under totalitarianism, basically we were safe. I had to face a trial twice. But it was a trial. I was not kidnapped.
It was not the 1950s.
And it was not the 1990s either! The mafia came in, and all the negative sides of the transition began to appear. This was the direction in which things began to move.
I supported the formation of the parties because I thought it was a necessary step. But I was not involved in them. I pulled out of politics. I decided that I wouldn’t do that any more. I decided not to continue with the same kind of activity I was involved in before or to change and become a politician. The social movements were out. Some nostalgia about the “good old days” remained, but that wasn’t very helpful.
You said 23 years ago that social movements also had a profound cultural impact throughout the region, but particularly in Slovenia. On feminism and gay/lesbian issues, people’s attitudes changed here in a way they didn’t change in Romania, for instance. What happened to that kind of energy?
Some of that – feminism and the gay movement — was irreversible. There still are homophobic scandals. You have that anywhere. But the movements had a lasting effect. Another big issue of the 1980s was anti-militarism, which had a big impact on public attitudes toward the army and organized violence. That changed with Slovenia becoming a new state and the argument that it needed an army. In the first parliament, there was still quite a strong position that Slovenia should be demilitarized. That didn’t succeed. It was overridden by the new responsibilities of the state.
Another important change was in the attitudes toward immigrants and refugees from the war in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia. In the first years the welcome was incredible. People were taken in. But the change came with the consistent activity of very small parties. They changed the public attitude. On the one hand, the state administered a genocide with the Erased. The authorities were not brave enough to shed blood to tie the country together. But there was this constitutive crime that was very cohesive for the new elite. And they succeeded in building public support for the military. On the other hand, with the war dragging on and the xenophobic activities of small parties in parliament, which was tolerated by the liberal government, the public attitudes changed. There was a cultural impact, but to believe that the changes were so profound was a misjudgment.
One of the things we talked about in Slovenia, though not so much in other parts of Yugoslavia, was the totalitarian potential in civil society. And that came very much to the fore with the fall of Communism.
I talked with Marko Hren, who was quite optimistic about the potential of anti-militarist organizing in that first parliament. He believes that the only reason the movement didn’t succeed was because it lacked information that the executive had about the planned intervention into Slovenia of the JNA and the federal government. The government used that as a rationale for rejecting the demilitarization of Slovenia.
But that was not the case. The initiative for the demilitarization of Slovenia was discussed in parliament after Slovenia had established its independence. It wasn’t in response to the Yugoslav army. At that point there was no support among the parties for that option. The Greens were for it, and the Greens were quite strong still, but apart from that, all the big parties were learning what realpolitik meant. Once you are in office, you embrace realpolitik. They didn’t want to expose themselves by supporting such infantile or childish initiatives. The movements were already out at that time, and the parties were not supporting it.
Do you think public sentiment, to the extent that you could judge public sentiment, was in favor of demilitarization?
It could have gone either way. Maybe that’s an over-optimistic view. I’m speculating but it might have succeeded with a strong PR campaign, which at that time no one was able to do. The Slovene army was of course the symbol of the state. But no one really took the Slovene army seriously — even before we began to send our soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The justification of the army became much different. At this point, NATO would not tolerate the demilitarization of Slovenia.
Of course not. That was also before Slovenia joined NATO. Now Slovenia is a member. Even with a strong public movement for opting out of NATO, it would have been hard to do anything.
Back in 1990, we talked about the confederation and federation options for Yugoslavia. Your position at the time was that the most important thing was to avoid bloodshed, and the question of state structure was a secondary question. Looking back, do you think that there were opportunities, between 1990 and the summer of 1991, when bloodshed could have been minimized with the transition in Yugoslavia? Or do you think it was largely inevitable as a result of the actions of Milosevic and Tudjman?
I still believe, but I could be completely wrong — though we’ll be able to find out when the archives are open — that a strong stance by the so-called international community in the last month before the war broke out could have made a big difference. But it was not forthcoming. The international community actually supported the disintegration of the federal state for very different reasons, including misinformation and stupidity. And the international community and the big international players that intervened in Yugoslavia actually incited violence. They played into the hands of those who wanted to unleash violence. It was an awful time, a very difficult historical moment. The question of war was more in the hands of the international community than in the hands of the players here in Yugoslavia. Those international players either failed or they succeeded in their aims — it’s a question of perspective whether they wanted to do certain things or whether it was unintentional.
Realistically speaking, the international community was not a well-oiled mechanism. We were talking largely about the United States and Germany.
After almost 25 years, I’m beginning to believe that the Germans had plans dating back to 1942-3 when it was thinking about how to organize huge economic spaces in Europe. They also made contingency plans for the defeat of the German army. Maybe I’m exaggerating because of my deep aversion to German politics today. But it’s worth looking at Germany’s plans for European economic organization from the first year of World War II.
There was certainly continuity in some of the people from the Nazi period to the post-Nazi period.
Yes. I’m sure Germany played a big role that was not so obvious to us as NGO actors. The United States was more on the surface, more transparent. The ex-ambassador to Belgrade admitted that he was fooled. I think he was sincere, but that’s not a compliment to U.S. politics at the time. France had very strange politics with Mitterand still in place. Mitterand was very good and brave in what he did. The Brits, with Hurd and different lords and their plans: each peace plan was a disaster and aggravated the situation. The British couldn’t get out of their colonial mindset. It was a sad chapter in the history of British colonialism.
Do you think there was sufficient precedent in international law at the time to justify an actual intervention to prevent violence? We have the precedent now with the Right to Protect, but I don’t want to project that into the past.
I would rather not project it into the future either! I don’t know, honestly speaking. But I believe — and we’re in the sphere of belief here – that a strong enough political stance from the West would have sufficed. I don’t think one would need to talk or think about intervention at that stage. It eventually came to an intervention, which I don’t think was very successful.
At the time you also said that one of the major reasons you didn’t support Slovenian independence in 1990 was because it would leave Kosovo to the Serbs. As we saw, that unfortunately transpired. Was there anything that a small country like Slovenia could have been done as Yugoslavia was disintegrating to have prevented what happened in Bosnia and Kosovo?
Slovenia at that stage could have played a much bigger in international politics because of its knowledge of the region — if it had had a clear stance toward what was happening. Instead of developing such politics and engaging with European players, our politicians began to get carried away with joining Europe and escaping the Balkans. They were caught up in the worst possible fantasies. So, it was a politics that missed an opportunity. Slovenia itself was very fortunate. But after that, it seems that it lost its compass.
Or perhaps it lost its compass because it was lucky.
Yes, because Slovenia was lucky, it had to pay for that. The goddess Fortune is very capricious.
When you look at the region right now, do you see any prospects of countries here reestablishing Yugoslavia: not in name but in an on-the-ground reality through transportation and commercial links.
I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. It depends on what will happen with the EU. Some kind of a tighter community might reemerge in this space of former Yugoslavia. But at the same time we should not suppose that the European context will remain the same down the line. Everything might fall apart, and not just in this region here.
Yes, many people talk about this possibility, both positively and negatively. I’ve talked to people who see Brussels as overly bureaucratic, even authoritarian, the same as Moscow was for Eastern Europe. That’s the language of Vaclav Klaus and the more nationalist parties in the region. Do you think that the EU has weathered its crisis, even though the EU has seemingly abandoned its earlier principles of equitable development? Can it reestablish its equilibrium?
It can reestablish its equilibrium. The question is what will that equilibrium mean. It’s not necessarily a desirable goal. My concern is not bureaucratization. Any political community needs good bureaucracy, good administration.
Also, authoritarianism is not necessarily my top objection to the EU. If you look at what is happening in southern Europe, I would tend to agree with those who see this as a form of colonialism. Greece is a colonized state. What is happening in Greece is incomprehensible. These political moves are incomprehensible within any democratic political framework. A half-informal body somewhere appoints the governments without elections. This is not a democratic deficit. This is the end of democracy. They’re taking out the basic constitutive element of politics.
This is very serious, and it hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. They say that it’s the financial crisis. But the financial crisis is the result of a certain political economic development that has run its course, exhausted its potential. There is no one in the EU that I see who has an understanding, much less a vision, of what is going on. There is a deep need for remodeling how we live. But they are just trying to resolve a crisis. They employ more and more violence and surveillance to accomplish this. I don’t fear authoritarianism. I fear totalitarianism. When you take out the mechanisms of democratic politics, you have unaccountable politics and an attempt to maintain an unsustainable order.
Where would you expect the impulse for remodeling to come from? These days, Euroskepticism is on the rise. Where would we find people of vision comparable to the architects of European integration? Do you expect this impulse to come from a certain layer of society or a constellation of countries that have had the experience of this democratic reversal and economic austerity?
I’d like to go back to what you said about the vision of the architects of integration. The question is: how good was that vision? They started talking about coal and steel in the 1950s. But coal and steel was already a vision of the 19th century. So their initial vision was already backward-looking, behind the economic development going on in Europe after World War II, which was a big reorganization following the Fordist and partly Keynesian approach of the United States. This initial vision should be reconsidered.
The question of where a different vision can come from is a very difficult one. Across the globe, from Chile to the United States, from Spain to Turkey, people are angry and fed up with the current political class. The global political class has lost its legitimacy. I don’t remember even in the worst years of the Communist period anything comparable in terms of the disdain, the hostility, or the disgust with politics. It’s very hard to expect that any new vision could come out of this political class. Even if it did come, it’s hard to imagine that the population, which has become so disillusioned with politics, would accept it.
But there are mental shifts in the population about what they want and what they value, which are not necessarily articulated in organizational forms. In Egypt what we see now is a popular uprising against democracy, because democracy has become a system that is unaccountable to the electorate. The purest form of this unaccountable politics is the drone democracy of Obama. This involves secret decisions far beyond the reach of public oversight and that have life-and-death consequences for many people. We are unprepared to think about political and economic responses when democracy, the hegemonic model for the last 200 years, seems to be in deep difficulty.
And it’s combined with deep difficulties in the economic system. This model that was triumphant after 1989 has hit a crisis in both its major elements. At the time, many of us were arguing that there were deep contradictions between these two elements, the market and democracy, that would lead to the disintegration of the model. One of our critiques at that time was that we were embracing technocracy by ceding all responsibility to a group of professionals who would run politics, with a thin layer of watchdog organizations trying to hold these technocrats accountable. But the technocrats haven’t turned out to be honest and the watchdogs haven’t turned out to be sufficient. So where are we now with this critique of technocracy?
Now we have serious politicians promoting technocratic governments. But technocratic governments are not de facto elected. It’s not a question of electing a technocratic government through democratic methods. It’s an imposition against the democratic process. It’s a cousin to the idea that financial speculators know what they are doing with their models and algorithms. One cannot have trust in that. The results, as we can all see, are disastrous.
Do you see any promising alternatives in terms of political structures?
No. There’s a lot of talk of direct democracy, which I’m sympathetic to as applied to small gatherings. But it’s irrelevant in the broader, global context. More hopeful, especially in the countries that have been hit hardest by the crisis, is a rediscovery of solidarity structures. Maybe something will come out of that. People are also beginning to realize that the really serious issues cannot be solved or dealt with by the markets. We need if not the state then some kind of public authority that replaces the state. The potential of the market at this time is very limited. The really difficult issues require the intervention of public authority.
It requires the intervention of public authority at a time when trust in public institutions has declined significantly.
There is this anger at the politicians. But the point is often made that these politicians are destroying the state. So there is a differentiation made between the public institutions and the politicians who have hijacked those institutions, who are destroying them for their own private benefits. This to me is promising, though I don’t know what will come out of it.
Even radical anti-government activists in the United States make a distinction between the government they hate and the welfare benefits they enjoy. It sounds as though our political authorities are incapable of dealing with our modern reality. These financial instruments, in their complexity, have outstripped the ability of our political institutions to contain them.
They have also outstripped the abilities of the economic actors to control them. They are running amok.
As you said, the initial impulses and vision of the EU were in a sense backward-looking. Are we going to be able to find a vision either for the EU or political structures in general that is not backward-looking?
Those in power are defensive. I don’t see any exceptions. They are more and more willing to use repression to maintain their positions. I’m not saying they’re stupid. They’re intelligent, but they use this intelligence in a limited sense to defend positions that have become untenable. There is no leadership.
You made a decision not to go into party politics. I interviewed a lot of people who did the same thing, like Jan Urban. As soon as Civic Forum won the elections, he stepped away from politics. Many people felt, though, that the best people were leaving politics, and only the mediocrities remained. In some sense, the best people didn’t want to become mediocre, because the job demands it. Vaclav Havel was seen as the one exception, someone willing to put up with all the demands of politics and yet maintaining some of his anti-political or naive positions. When you look back, do you think you made the right decision — and I don’t mean just you but everyone who took that particular position?
I don’t regret that decision. Maybe it’s self-justification: we often try to find rationalizations for our decisions. Given my expertise, I think that what I could do, which was more important than sitting in an office in government or parliament, has been try to guard the political language. The political language was treated very badly these past 23 years. My parallel is with the grammarians in late antiquity after the Christian emperors took over and dissolved all the schools. They saw themselves as the guardians of the language. They succeeded. Much of what we think and speak is due to their efforts. They saw something very far away but essential.
During the Dark Ages.
Especially during such a period. But also during the periods of excitement. We’ve had both in the last two decades: lots of excitement and lots of darkness.
You made the same point 23 years ago actually when you said you were more interested in the language of politics than in politics itself.
Yes, I would still say that.
Slovenia is often portrayed as a winner in Eastern Europe. if you look at all the countries in the region, Slovenia has done reasonably well, for instance in terms of GDP per capita. Also, it didn’t suffer for the most part as a result of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Although there have been some unfortunate political deformations in the country, it’s not as bad as Romania or Bulgaria. To what do you attribute this success? And do you think Slovenia has gotten past the worst of it in terms of transition?
The story behind Slovenia’s success is that the country had a very energetic and able Communist government, economically speaking. The Communists developed the educational system, produced a qualified labor force, and created an economy that could export products. This model, which was set up in the second half of the 20th century, was still not exhausted at the time of independence. Economists have done research on this, and I’ve been convinced by their research.
By mid-2010, however, that potential was exhausted, and there has been nothing to replace it. The political elite we have is incapable of producing a new model of mobilizing the population for anything. They are destroying the educational system. They are polarizing society. They are bringing out ideological conflicts — actually these conflicts arise out of identity politics. At the same time, they have consolidated their positions in order to plunder what was left of the public wealth. Some of those people have been brought to trial. Looking back, it’s as though a well-organized criminal gang was in power.
The problem is not just the few individuals who have been brought to trial and who in fact committed criminal activities of different kinds but the political environment in which they were able to do this. It’s not one MP who was sent to jail who is the problem but the 80 others who were willing to sit with him in the same House. The economy is now completely devastated, and there is no alternative vision. In a way it was a success story, but that success story is over, and I’m not sure if the worst has come yet. I’m not very optimistic. Of course, things might change. We still don’t have the new government. We are implementing the politics of the former government, which were supposedly diametrically opposed to the politics of this one. We have just one politics and different executioners of that politics. The politics no longer change with the change of administration.
Some people call that stability! It’s the stability of a criminal enterprise.
It’s the stability of decline. But I might be overly pessimistic. What I see is not very encouraging.
Your description of Slovenia doesn’t sound that different from Hungary and Fidesz. You describe these advantages as a resource that had been gradually exhausted.
As if it were oil under the ground that the Communist government had preserved or built up. But you could look at it the other way around – epidemiologically – as a disease that infected the region and is now emerging in various countries and in various ways. In that way, Slovenia and Hungary are not that different although the political configurations on the face of it are quite different.
We could bring in other countries as well, ex-Communist and others. I don’t think there is so much difference in the ways the governments work across Europe today.
The technocrats would say in response that the problem is quite simple and it’s just a matter of sequence. They would say that the rule of law was not prioritized over the economic changes, so that the economic changes didn’t take place in an ideal framework. As Serbia begins to deal with its chapters of accession, the EU will prioritize rule of law so that the economic changes take place in a proper legal environment.
It’s meaningless if you don’t speak about the law concretely. The economic transformation made legal would only mean that we would legalize what we now call criminal activity. All the complaints of the lack of reform in the labor market or the delays in privatization – they call that the lack of law. For me that’s unconvincing. I’m all for the rule of law. But the rule of law can mean many different things. The technocrats, as you describe their arguments, would simply like to see their politics or their particular economic model translated into law, which to me is not the definition of “rule of law.” The rule of law should be independent of any politics.
We don’t have the same kind of corruption in Washington as in Moscow, for instance, because we have simply defined our corruption as legal. We are technically operating within the rule of law. But it still involves the transfer of resources.
I want to ask you about Turkey. It’s something you’ve been studying historically. When you look at Turkey today and how it is understood both as a perennial aspirant, sometimes an ambivalent aspirant, to membership to the EU — but also the struggle between secular structures and some kind of political Islam (though I don’t like using that phrase) in the AKP and how that is depicted in the West — how would you connect that to the way that Turks have been portrayed in the European imagination over the last several hundred years?
There are a lot of questions in here. First about EU accession with Turkey: that’s mainly the stupidity of the EU that it doesn’t make a bigger effort to coopt Turkey. From whatever angle, it would be in the interests of the EU for Turkey to be a member. How the Turks themselves feel about it is a different question.
What’s happening in Turkey today has actually very little to do with the historical imagination of Turks invading Europe. If you look at the protests in Taksim Square, they’re the same as the demonstrations in Santiago or Sacramento or Athens. The same issues, the same demands: the people on the streets are fighting the same struggles. The government in Turkey is like any other respected government in the West trying to implement economic politics that are destructive of society. The difference is only that the AKP is able to add an element of piety to it to create a kind of Islamic neo-liberalism. The issues, the problems, and the arrogance of those in power are all the same.
Are you still working on European understandings of Islam and Turkey?
Not really. It’s on the backburner.
What’s your research on now?
I’m mostly working on Thomas Hobbes and the reception of his political philosophy after his death. He had been forgotten for centuries. He was rediscovered in a very interesting political context to advance the arguments of the political Left in England, Germany, and across Europe. I’m looking at the story from the beginning of this rediscovery to the Nazi reaction to it.
You were writing about a particular German author…
Carl Schmidt. Yes, I think he’s a very dangerous political author. I’m trying to look at what he did with Hobbes in a specific political context. Unfortunately, he’s one of the authors that the Left, especially in the United States, had embraced at the moment of crisis at the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism.
The Left embraced what aspect of his thinking?
His critique of liberalism. But his critique of liberalism was from the Nazi position. It’s nice to read a good critique of liberalism, but you have to take into account the context in which he produced it.
That has a lot of resonance today, unfortunately, There are many critiques of liberalism in this part of the world coming from the extreme Right. On economics, they sound like Leftists and on social issues like Roma, they sound like Nazis.
Liberalism is in crisis. It shares the fate of democracy. The Right is perhaps not only one step but more than one step ahead of the Left in its critique of liberalism. That’s not a compliment to the Left. One cannot say that the critique of liberalism is not due. But it’s important to see from what perspective it is articulated. We, on the Left, are behind, neglectful.
We are intellectually behind. More importantly, we are institutionally behind. There is no organization that can reflect or embody a critique of liberalism with an alternative. It’s a double failing. In the essay you contributed to our book on Europe’s New Nationalism, you made an argument about Bosnia that civil society was aligned against the state, and that the state was critical in providing services to ensure the survival of the state. What are your reflections on that argument today, 20 years later, with Bosnia not being a particularly strong state today?
That’s a hard question because at the time when we talked I was following the developments in Bosnia very carefully. I had friends there. I can’t say that today. I’m out of touch. What I see is a sad story. Some people from Bosnia would say that what came after the war was in many respects more difficult than the war itself. But I don’t really know enough to make any judgments about that. I don’t know about the civil society there.
If you were to apply that argument generally, in terms of similar situations that states find themselves, would you change your argument in any way?
I am pro-state. I don’t see any set of institutions replacing the state as the primary form of public authority. The state might be undermined or downsized. But I don’t see a substitute emerging in place of the state. Without the state, in my view, violence is due to emerge, sooner or later. And I don’t see the enforcement of law as something the minimal state can handle. Nor can it deal with questions of social security and environmental protection. We’re living at a time when we need public authority. I would still insist on the state. Civil society simply doesn’t have that capacity. Civil society can feed into state action. It can challenge the state. It can set limits to state action. But it cannot replace it. In Eastern Europe at certain moments we saw the replacement of the state with civil society, which basically just produced a very disorganized state.
Your argument stays with me because the Left in the US has become so libertarian in its instincts that it too falls into this belief that civil society is a model for how society should be organized. The last question: when you look back to your arguments in that period, from the late 1980s on, are there any arguments that you’ve reconsidered as a result of subsequent experience?
To answer at a very general level, I think I was very naive about democracy and quite uninformed about liberalism. At the time, both democracy and liberalism seemed very clear alternatives to what we were experiencing. But it turned out that things were much messier. These alternatives didn’t offer the answers we hoped naively they would offer.
Did that realization come relatively quickly or did it dawn on you later?
Soon. I was critical of many aspects of democracy and liberalism even before the fall of the Wall. But I didn’t know nearly enough to fully understand what I was unhappy with: why the problems were problems. But it was clear very fast that at least part of the reason for the political problems that had emerged in Eastern Europe after the fall were due to the weakness of our understanding of democracy and liberalism as alternatives.
For people now who are roughly the age you were back then, what kind of advice would you give?
I don’t know! Again, I am very much out of touch with the groups that are doing this kind of work. But the impression I have is that they need and work as if nothing really came before them, except perhaps for Marx. I would certainly understand and support anyone who would reject being tutored by my generation. I don’t think we had any real solutions that they should keep and develop. But it would be very useful to know what happened before. Even the people who believe they are making history are cut off from recent history.
So, you couldn’t tell them about solutions, but you could tell them about mistakes.
I could certainly tell them about mistakes.
My last questions are quantitative. When you look back at what has changed or not changed since 1989 until today in Slovenia, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Same period of time, same scale: but your own personal life?
That’s a tricky question. Things have changed a lot.
You can play it safe and say five.
I can’t quantify that.
When you look into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Slovenia on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimist and 10 most optimistic?
I wouldn’t go beyond two.
Ljubljana, August 4, 2013
I first met Tomaz Mastnak at the preparatory meeting of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly where he was one of the more vocal participants, especially on the question of oppositionists turned politicians participating in the governing structures of the Assembly. He was considerably more soft-spoken when I talked with him in Ljubljana.
Could you describe some of the work that you do?
I am a sociologist by profession. I have been researching in to the new social movements in Eastern Europe and I have been involved in the discussions of civil society in this part of the world. On the other hand, I am researching the history of political languages: which focuses not on the ideas but the language in which they are expressed. Politically, I was of course a member of the Communist party in the 1970s. I left it long ago. In the early 1980s I’ve been involved in the new social movements here, the so-called alternative scene: the peace movement, mainly. At the moment I don’t belong to any political party. I’m close to the Liberal party, that’s true. As a kind of advisor. And I’m still active in the social movements here in Ljubljana. Since the military trial in 1988 and later with the results of the elections, the movement somehow disappeared. And we are trying to recreate these activities. On the international scene, I went to many meetings of the independent European peace movement. We have had contacts with people from the East at a time when it was difficult for Westerners to go there. We were in a privileged position at that time and I hope we used it well. And at the moment as you know I am active in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly.
I was astounded by the number of groups in the alternative scene in Ljubljana: 40 groups alone working on this conversion of the military barrack. When I voiced optimism at the number of alternative groups in Hungary, I was told that it wasn’t as wonderful as it seemed. Is it as wonderful here as it seems?
I would like to explain this with reference to recent history. The distinction of the Slovenian democratization was that it was initiated and carried through by the movements. And the political parties, or political organizations, joined much later, when the basic things had been achieved. Which meant that this scene was quite strong, relatively strong in number given the population of Ljubljana. It was very pluralistic, covering many fields of activities. It was theoretically and intellectually very strong since almost all the able intellectuals of the younger generation joined the movement, not to play a vanguard role but to be part of it. This means that we had a very strong tradition in this respect. And the groups that are now involved in the reestablishing of the network partly grow out of this tradition. They had been involved in the former times. There are some newer which have formed themselves within the institutions of alternative culture. So I would say that 40 groups is not such a surprise. I do not want to think in terms of optimism or pessimism. But they represent a real strength, a real power.
The scene has changed with the advent of political parties. Have the movements changed their character because of this trend?
The first result of the change in political scene was that the social movements disappeared. But this happened at the time when one cycle of social movements came to an end anyway. We were just starting a discussion on the future of the movement when the military trial and the election intervened. So this discussion of the future was interrupted. So what we are doing now is a kind of reinitiation of the movement, which means that they will partly change or will change character. The most important feature of the changing situation in my view is that the role of the public opinion has changed. Public opinion has been somehow…the parties and political interests have been imposed on public opinion. Which means that very few people listen to arguments; they just ask which party does the person belong to? So it is not a question of arguments that matter, but the question of party affiliation. Whereas in the past, words and arguments really had great strength. So now we have to find now a different way of arguing to be listened to. The other thing is that there is more or less complete freedom of the press now. Which means that there is a great deal of information now, no more taboo themes. Anybody can write or speak on whatever they think appropriate. In order to attract some attention, people have to find scandals: from private life, or they rediscover in rather disgusting way the crimes which are disgusting enough which were committed after the war. So it’s a kind of degeneration.
Several alternative movements decided to enter the elections in a coalition. Was that a difficult decision to make? I imagine a lot of people did not want to deal with party politics.
I must say that I was not in the country when this initiative took shape. I came only later. At that time, I was of a different opinion than the main protagonist of this list. I namely thought that it would be a good to form a coalition with the Liberal party. The Liberal party was ready to grant all the autonomy to the movements. So there would still be an independent list but they would compete for votes together. As the electoral system was organized such that only parties that got more than 2 or 3 per cent could get MPs, the higher the per cent the more MPs, the social movements could have gained at least 2 MPs. So what happened was a political disaster.
But on the other hand I am glad that this happened. Because politics is important; it matters. And it was a very useful experience to organize, spokespersons had the opportunity to popularize ideas on TV and in national media and so on. I would not like to see a similar thing that would happen here as in East Germany where the fundamentalist attitude toward politics was much stronger within the movement and they simply disappeared from the scene. I am not against politics. I am not against political involvement in the movement. I just think that the distinction between the two modes of activity should be made clear.
Many intellectuals told me during my travels that they thought that political parties were a thing of a past. This struck me as odd. Here in these countries, parties had just formed and some people were talking as though they had outlived their usefulness. Have people talked about this idea here as well?
I don’t love particularly political parties. But I think that they are still the best way of organizing social interests politically. They are still indispensable. Political democracy is not possible without having the possibility of organized parties. The other thing is that we have experienced here in Yugoslavia a non-party system. It was not just a monolithic one-party system but a system that pretended to be more. The party pretended to be a movement and created a non-political pluralism of interests. Which means that people were urged to say what they think and then these interests were then monopolized by the party. I think that the people whom I met in the East who were advocating a non-party political system, some of whom are in influential positions, are blocking the development of political pluralism, especially the institutionalization of this pluralism. What they have offered instead – a kind of Popular Front organization like the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia or the citizens committees in Poland – I don’t think is good. Because the differences within these organizations are too strong and tensions are too strong. The result is that, in Poland, a person like Walesa appears on the scene advocating in my view dictatorial solutions but speaking democratic language. I’m afraid that the leadership of these popular front organizations simply overestimate their importance. They are very important, not because they have the best people in their ranks, but because other interests or parties can’t appear. The same is happening now in Slovenia. Demos, the coalition of some of the opposition parties, is now declaring itself the embodiment of the national interest. They have simply suspended the identities of the constituted parties on the one hand and on the other hand they are very hostile to all the parties which are outside their coalition. I find this a very dangerous and unhealthy development.
One of the reasons why people expressed distaste for parties was the popular disenchantment with the electoral process. People I interviewed in Hungary said that they hoped they would never have to go through another “dogfight” like that again. Is that just a question of first elections or of people having to get used to the dirtiness of politics in general?
One is of course first elections. The political scene in our country is not a normalized political scene. It is still to much influenced by the old system, not only by the power of the old forces but by the mentality of the people now in power who can’t get rid of the way of thinking, of organizing. And more or less all the new governments won on the anti-Communist vote not on their political programs. They more or less all of them speak nationalist languages so the political scene is far from normal. Then, of course, many people had invested great hopes in the new developments and they are now getting disappointed. That’s clear. They’re realizing that politics is dirty business. I agree. But that’s something that belongs to politics. One should simply not expect that there will be clean, undirty politics. This is some utopia which can’t bring democratic results. The idea of many of the antagonists of the old regime was to have an uncorrupted politics. Of course all they had established is unrestrained power. Of course the people have different idea about what politics should be regardless of their expectations. And I think that these ideas are not good guidelines to practical politics. And I think that saying “I simply dislike party politics” is not a political statement, it is an aesthetic statement. One should understand what is going on and accept it or oppose it.
One problem in this region is the creation of a new group of professional politicians. Has a new class of politicians emerged and does the new Slovenian politician resemble the American politician who has no particular skills other than compromise and self-promotion or the European politician who comes more clearly from the intelligentsia?
It is difficult to say because it has only been three months since the elections of the government. It’s clear that a new power elite has been created. If the new power holders could be named politicians is another question. As you have noted, the great majority are without political experience. And they simply have no skills. Here in Slovenia, almost all of the persons in the new power elite are intellectuals. A great number of them are intellectuals who used to be writers or poets and of course they not only don’t think politically, but not sociologically or in terms of political science. They just have their poetic ideas about life. On the other hand, the people coming from social sciences are people who haven’t made a great name in this field: so they are compensating for lack of success there. I would simply call them “ideologists.” They know the language of politics and they use it quite skillfully – but it is simply an ideology. This is again a thing that doesn’t contribute to clarification. Too many of these people are incapable of having dialog with other-minded people or can’t make any compromises with people who belong to other political organizations. They simply have great ideas and they are convinced that they have a mission.
They sound like revolutionaries.
Yes I would call them revolutionaries. It is a revolutionary mentality.
So they are interim politicians as most revolutionaries are.
One of the things that I was most upset by was the new power’s prevention of the professionalization of politics. They simply compelled people from politics, mostly from the opposition, to be amateurs. On the other hand, they are employing their MPs in the state apparatus. So they lose all their independence if they are dependent on the party bosses.
Let me return to the new social movements. Most countries I have travelled to have been rather conservative: traditional, religious and so on. And they have looked rather suspiciously on new social movements. When street theater was anti-Communist in Poland for example, it was fine, but now alternative culture is viewed rather differently. Is it a similar situation here in Slovenia?
I have been convinced that we are living in a quite secular society, relatively modern, in which movements enjoyed great support and great sympathy. Not just in Ljubljana, which is a city, but in the countryside as well. But after the election, political Catholicism re-entered the social and political scene and the Catholic ideologists have the ideology apparatus of the state in their hands. And they have become quite aggressive and intolerant. The first indication was the discussion of abortion earlier this year when Christian Democrats who demanded that a relatively liberal law on abortion should be changed. I would say that of course that everyone has the right to his or her own view on abortion. But I think that it is always a dangerous development when one derives a legal system from ideological or religious or philosophical convictions. And that is exactly what they would like to do: to have an ideological state which will be much more conservative than the older one. So that’s one side of the story. The other is that there is a part of society which is conservative, anti-democratic, intolerant, sexist, homophobic, all of this. And they feel that they can speak their minds now. So they are becoming more loud and aggressive than they used to be. And this might create the impression that they are very strong and represent a considerable segment of society. I don’t think so but maybe I’m wrong. In a way I was happy with the ease in the mid-1980s that feminist or homosexual ideas were accepted in this country. It was only the conservative politicians which opposed these ideas. But the people accepted these ideas, quite tolerably.
Why did the people accept these ideas? Because the conservative politicians were skeptical?
No. Because all these issues which were opposed by the conservative politicians were an integral part of the democratization. And the democratization was carried through by the movements. So it was perceived as elements of democratizing society. That’s what it was really all about.
Marko Hren told me that the government has done several things to rein in the new social movements like closing down clubs. How extensive is this trend?
Yes, extensive. A kind of silent repression which turned out to be very effective. People became demoralized, they had no place to go. And still there are no real clubs for alternative culture here in Ljubljana. There are many clubs for people who have lots of money and who like to live that advertised way of American life. That’s OK. That was never a problem. For people who listen to other kind of music, who behave differently, they have always had troubles. At the moment there is one club, or one building could be used for this. But the mayor of the town, who is a militant Catholic, wants to give the building back to its former owners, a Church organization. So we could lose that place as well. The idea nevertheless is to get that military barracks. And it is not surprising that so many groups joined the initiatives. There are just no rooms. It is hasn’t changed. The new regime is similarly hostile.
What are the economic views of the alternative scene here? In the U.S., it would be difficult to find punks for instance who would call themselves economic liberals.
The Liberal party here has a very social democratic program. So it isn’t a freemarketeering party. Of course it is for a market economy. But it is quite aware that regulation and a good social policy is needed. As far as the movement is concerned, it is difficult to talk of their economic ideas. Because the preconditions for their economic activities didn’t exist. Of course there was a small production of radio, tapes, posters, videos. But they couldn’t earn their living this way. Now they have to think other sources of income. The movements used to get different subsidies for alternative culture, not a lot, but at least enough not to die. And the movement as such had very good relations with the former youth organization, the Liberal party. Which meant that people could get a car could go to a conference in Budapest. Now this situation has changed. In this movement, we thought during one of the recent meetings of asking the great enterprises to help which we could then somehow repay the debt. The movement will have to think more about economics than they previously did.
What do you think the government’s attitude toward economic reform?
I’m afraid I can’t say anything important. There is a small group in Demos, the smallholders or small businessmen. They advocate the most superficial ideology of free market and they have influence in Demos. On the other hand, one of the ministers of the economy is quite close to social democratic ideas.
Let me ask you about the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. You were at the preparatory meeting in June and recently in Prague for a presidium meeting. How do you feel about the way HCA is moving?
It is still ambiguous. But I think that the project is worth it. It is the only institution of international civil society. Despite all of the features which make me and my friends unhappy, it is worth continuing.
What are some of those features?
The role of the former oppositionists who have become political leaders and they don’t reflect the change. They claim that they are the same people as before. Of course they are, I won’t question their morality. But they are different people. Most of them are doing a different job. They think that they don’t reflect this and then they impose their interests or even the interests of their parties on something which is a civil-social institution. This means of course, minimizing the roles of the movements or citizens’ initiatives which have become marginal anyway.
The major argument against this is that prominent people would lend legitimacy and authority to the gathering. How do you respond to this?
In a sense, it is of course a reasonable argument. The problem with it is that the idea behind it is mainstream European culture. And in my view, the majority of the movements and citizens simply don’t belong to this mainstream. Whatever that is. And some of our friends from Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries have uncritical views of Europe, what Europe means, and consequently European integration. I think that the moral credibility should be created by the Assembly itself and should not come too much from the prominent people who will not do any work because they are too busy.
How do you stand on the confederation vs. federation issue?
What I am interested in now is how to prevent bloodshed. In that sense, I am somewhat confused by this confederalist option which may function well enough for Slovenia but which would cause great disturbances in the south. In the same way I am not very sympathetic to the idea of separation for Slovenia at the moment because it would mean leaving Albanians to the mercy of the Serbian government. I simply can’t understand the indifference of the Slovenian government on that issue. It is simply politics. Because what happens in Kosovo has great consequences on Slovene politics. But they present it as though it is happening in a different country. I am not attached to any Yugoslav idea. I can’t imagine how a new Yugoslavia could exist. This formula for confederation will not solve any problems if the result is a new Yugoslavia. As I understand confederation, it is a way of disintegrating Yugoslavia non-violently, to have a certain control of the process of dissolution. On the other hand, talk of federation is even more futile. What I would like to see, and I will say it again, is to prevent bloodshed. I would support any institutional solution which would contribute to this aim. On the other hand, I am not interested in having a Yugoslav state or a Slovene state: this is a secondary question.
And on the question of demilitarizing Slovenia?
We would like to deconstruct military structures. The question for us is not to have a Yugoslav army or a Slovene national army. They would be equally bad. I could imagine a Slovene army would be a more dangerous option than a Yugoslav army for different reasons. I think that this solution could be put into practice regardless of the future settlement here in this part of the world, regardless of whether Yugoslavia still exists and has a federal army, regardless of whether Slovenia secedes. This could contribute the most to a non-violent solution of conflicts in general, but also non-violent dealing with existing problems. In this time and in this region, this is in my view a realistic options. Unfortunately we have revolutionaries in power who don’t think realistically.
But they would say that an increasingly independent Slovenia will need an army to defend “national interests.” Even Switzerland needs an army, they would say. How do you argue against this?
On the other hand, this is an obsolete idea of what state sovereignty is. Having an army is not a necessary attribute to state sovereignty. The idea behind sovereignty is the monopoly of the means of violence, not the army. And of course, people are getting caught in this nationalist euphoria. They would like to see everything Slovene, including a Slovene army. How would we argue against this? One, Slovenia is too small, and it would be a great economic burden. It’s such a small country, even if it had an army it couldn’t resist any foreign aggression. There is the question of international promotion of Slovenia. This would surely – if Slovenia would decide to put this idea into practice – attract great attention and support from all over the world. It would be a great experiment whose importance would go far beyond Slovenian borders. The international situation is also very favorable to this project. Hungarians, Austrians, Czechs, and Italians are all speaking of demilitarizing their respective regions. So Slovenia could be a part of this process.