12/3/2012 Maribor Protests

In late April, the Slovene cities of Ljubljana and Maribor hosted the Hub Meetings, a gathering of radical European and Mediterranean movements that included activists from Democracia Real Ya (Spanish network that promoted the occupation of squares in Spain known also as 15M movement); Global Project (a communication project of Italian social centers); UniNomade (an Italian militant research network); and Blockupy (an international network established during last year’s Blockupy Frankfurt). Slovenia proved a propitious locale for the meeting’s “expressions of indignation against neoliberal governance and crisis dictatorship.” As activists discussed strategies for resisting the dominant politics of austerity, this former Yugoslav republic–the first postsocialist state to join both the European Union and the Eurozone—was the subject of intense global speculation that it would become “the next Cyprus,” the next member state to succumb to the European sovereign debt crisis and require financial bailout. Furthermore, Slovenia was in the midst of a series of “uprisings”–outbursts of popular anger towards established political elites. The broader European movement’s slogan “No one represents us!” resonated strongly here. While such circumstances would seem to be ideal ones for radical activist networks in Slovenia, they also posed unexpected and revealing challenges to existing activist frameworks and sensibilities. Drawing on our longstanding participation in and study of Slovene activism–we consider the possibilities of activists’ efforts to “effectively resist crisis dictatorship and build forms of counterpower capable of fundamental change.” Here we will summarize the main features of Slovenia’s uprisings and then reflect critically on the obstacles organized radical groups face when they try to facilitate the transformation of mass expressions of indignation into a grassroots constituent process grounded in social needs and desires. Hub debates make clear that the Slovene case resonates with activist experiences in Southern and Eastern Europe, including Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria, Croatia and especially Greece.

The erosion of trust in political and state institutions began even before the recent uprisings. Wildcat strikes at Slovenia’s flagship factories–Gorenje (appliances), Mura (textiles) and Koper (container port)–indicated that existing civil and political institutions no longer adequately mediated social antagonisms. Furthermore, as we elaborated in the May 2012 of American Ethnologist 15o, the 2011 occupy-style movement, was an unprecedented and innovative directly democratic mobilization. The November uprisings, however, which began in Maribor, the largest city in Slovenia’s poorer and rapidly deindustrialized East, mark a dramatic break with earlier Slovene traditions of protest. The trigger was a public-private partnership to install an automated speed radar network. When more than 25,000 speeding tickets were issued in the first two days of operation–and 92% of proceeds went to the private contractor–the radars were destroyed and crowds gathered in the city center demanding the mayor’s resignation. In a country with no history of confrontational protest, the media was soon awash in images of Maribor that were reminiscent of the 2005 riots in the French banlieues. The generation of precarious youth clashed with police, chanting “We are Maribor!” and “Maribor is a Prison!”

The spread of unrest to other cities, and its generalization in one-day “All-Slovene Uprisings,” saw organized attempts to give political expression to popular indignation. The underlying assumption was that the uprisings were merely unarticulated rage, requiring redirection into proper political channels. These efforts–primarily led by dominant figures of civil society–stifled popular outrage and normalized the uprisings. Subsequent uprisings came increasingly to have the character of traditional demonstrations with articulated demands. As some self-declared organizers–largely from the middle class–sought to establish themselves as reasonable parties suitable for dialogue with those holding political power, some even supported official efforts to discipline the uprisings. Soon there were calls for a new political party that would demand an end to public spending cuts. Dynamism and diversity were sacrificed for the sake of a particular kind of unity. These interventions alienated participants in the first uprisings, such as Maribor’s younger generation, and excluded the confrontational attitude of earlier uprisings. Uprisings became protest coalitions.

 Meanwhile evidence mounts that the crisis of representative politics persists, even deepens. Early elections in Maribor, held after the mayor was driven from office, attracted only 31% of voters. The new national center-left government–elected when the previous government fell to widespread anger and protest over corruption–continues policies of bank bailouts and austerity. As the imposed financial crisis continues, ushering in policies to privatize and expropriate social welfare and the commons, new uprisings seem inevitable.

If social movements are to propose concrete alternatives, to encourage a grassroots and constituent process, one that is liberatory and capable of producing common wealth, it is crucial for us to confront the lessons of the first wave of uprisings. We must learn how to defend the heterogeneity of uprisings from attenuation, how to protect them from imposed binarisms (like violence/non-violence, articulated/non-articulated, etc.). At the same time we must grasp uprisings strategically, grasp the tools they provide not only for the free expression of differences, but also for fresh political enunciation. Ideas developed in earlier activist struggles seem to founder on a simple truth of subjectivity. This truth was evident in our struggles to relate to the younger generation of precarious youth in Maribor, especially in the face of their strong, local patriotism–systematically encouraged by the corrupt mayor to strengthen his rule, but eventually turned against him. These struggles highlight the incapacity of activists to relate local struggles, which draw on localist discourses, to the political concepts and outlook developed within activist networks. It is difficult but nonetheless crucial to produce a common language across such differences. This is a matter of great urgency because the vacuum created by the crisis of representative politics is rapidly being filled with EU neoliberal governance, nationalist populism, and as we already see in Greece, the rise of strong fascist parties. What we desperately need as activists are forms of militant research alongside the uprisings that are not normative, that are not based on preconstituted ideas, but are able to read subjectivity in all its complexity and ambiguity while attending to its simultaneous potential for transformation.

We must learn how to defend the heterogeneity of uprisings from attenuation, how to protect them from imposed binarisms like violence/non-violence and  articulated/non-articulated.

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