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2022 | Book

The Political Economy of Eastern Europe 30 years into the ‘Transition’

New Left Perspectives from the Region


Table of Contents

The first part of the introduction explains the background and motivation of the book: the context and the formation of new left politics and expertise in Eastern Europe in the last two decades, the challenges of communicating new left perspectives regionally and globally in the context of established communication and research infrastructures; and the book’s place within ongoing efforts to make such dialogues possible. The second part of the introduction outlines common baselines and lessons offered by the perspectives presented in the book. On the one hand, these are made up by common threads in the various left research traditions authors subscribe to—like a critical political economy perspective and a materialist approach to the history of politics and political ideas—and their consequences in terms of similarities of local diagnoses—like the claim that the political level of the regime change in 1989–1991 is preceded by a transformation of socio-economic structures and world-economic integration similar to the neoliberalization of other semi-peripheries from the 1970’s. On the other hand, some common elements are specific to the context and history of East European socio-political constellations and the position of new left thought within them—like the issue of anticommunist or anticorruption campaigns. The third part of the introduction explains the structure of the book, the selection of authors and their relation to respective local new left scenes, and provides an outline of each chapter.
Agnes Gagyi
Life in Transition and in Crisis. The Political Autobiography of a Generation
30 years since the regime change: beyond an occasion and a topic of academic and political discussions, this period also constitutes the lifetime of a generation. Connecting socio-economic analysis with their own position as members of this generation, the authors provide an account of postsocialist transformation in Romania. Against interpretations that conceive communism as a system separate from the capitalist world economy, and understand transition as a story of “returning to capitalism”, the chapter depicts the specific ways in which communist Romania’s internal development was tied to changing geopolitical and world-economic partnerships. Within this process, authors trace their own generational experience as marked by three overlapping crises of structural processes: the profitability crisis of the post-1945 global cycle that starts in the 1970s, the crisis of the communist model of rapid industrialization; and the social crisis built up by global neoliberalization, into which postsocialist societies entered with the highest hopes of freedom and capitalist welfare.
Dana Domşodi, Florin Poenaru
When Did a Transition to Capitalism Start in Serbia?
Thirty years have passed since the fall of socialism. However, the boundary between capitalism and socialism in the Serbian context is not so clear. Some authors postpone the period of capitalist restoration after the fall of Slobodan Milošević’s regime. Although this period was indeed marked by an accelerated economic transformation, characterized by mass privatization and market liberalization, it is still the question whether it is possible to make a clear cut between the socialist past and the capitalist present. Instead of looking at the dissolution of socialist Yugoslavia or the post-Milošević era, we investigate the market reforms that marked the economy of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, and analyze socialism as a system ridden with internal contradictions. Following the analytical framework set by Michael Lebowitz in his book “The Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’: The Conductor and the Conducted” (2012), and applying it to the analysis of Yugoslav socialism, we point out that the boundary between socialism and capitalism is much more blurred. Thus the question when does the transition to capitalism begin proves to be much more complex.
Vladimir Simović, Tanja Vukša
The Restoration of Capitalism in Slovenia and Croatia
This chapter is composed of three parts. The first outlines socio-historic processes of the “real existing socialism” in Yugoslavia and shows how the deadlocks of transition to socialism led to restoration of capitalism. The second and third parts analyze the restoration in Slovenia and Croatia respectively, and the first 30 years of capitalist development. The balance sheet of the analysis is two-fold. On the one hand, it shows that restoration could result in different varieties of capitalism both because of different starting points and of deliberation of social forces. On the other hand, it indicates that both societies converge in the direction of a markedly peripheral capitalism, which produces similar challenges for left-wing forces.
Marko Kržan, Dimitrije Birač
Bosnia and Herzegovina After the Transition: Forever Postwar, Postsocialist and Peripheral?
The paper brings together several strands of academic and activist involvement with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) colonial, postwar and postsocialist condition including relevant theoretical musings and analysis of struggles on the ground. It discusses peripherality in the specific context of BiH spanning over almost thirty years since 1992 while expanding the term beyond world systems’ theory to include bio-political governance by the ruling ethnonationalist parties who try to secure the status quo at all costs- be it over the memory and remembrance of the 1992–1995 war or issues of state-sanctioned violence like in the “Justice for David” movement. By tracing three phases of politico-economic restructuring and their aftermath and by giving account of the struggles in which we participated as activists, not only do we document moments in politico-economic history of the country but seek to conceive through what kind of struggles new models of sociality can emerge dismissing peripherality altogether.
Danijela Majstorović, Zoran Vučkovac
Ukraine and the (Dis)integrating “Empire of Capital”
This chapter combines a neo-Gramscian approach with analysis of imperialism to analyze transformations of the state-sosciety complex in Ukraine throughout geopolitical shifts. It describes the interaction of Ukraine and the “empire of capital” through connections between local kleptocracy, lobbyist groups, international organizations, and transnational capital. From this perspective, the author addresses the four main important political myths circulating in discussions around Ukraine: the myth of necessary transition; democracy; “two Ukraines”; and the Russian and communist “Other”. It places these myths into a chronology of Ukraine’s postsocialist development in terms of a struggle between competing oligarchic networks, leading up to Maidan and the events that followed, meaning both a crisis of the domestic legitimacy of oligarchic rule and also a crisis of the international position of Ukraine, which effectively lost its national sovereignty in various areas. In the last parts of the chapter, the author argues for her prognosis of a “third Maidan” which she published in late 2017. This “third Maidan” took the unexpected form of Zelensky’s presidential campaign, and alongside the Orange Revolution and Maidan underlines the domestic and international problems of Ukraine.
Yuliya Yurchenko
Reconfiguring Regimes of Capitalist Integration: Hungary Since the 1970s
This chapter looks at how reconfiguring Hungarian regimes are linked to changing modes of world-economic integration since the world-economic crisis of the 1970’s. It traces the process through which a “bridge” position of the Hungarian economy, relying on Western technological imports counterbalanced by the export of cheap Soviet oil and raw materials got dismantled in the context of the 1970’s crisis, and how resulting reorganizations prepared the ground for the privatizations and Western FDI-based model of the 1990’s. Then, the chapter follows how the end of privatization is succeeded by a debt-led integration model in the 2000’s, and replaced after the crisis of 2008 by a reconfiguration of internal–external structures of world economic integration defined by a politics of the present conservative government that combines a dependent integration subservient to the needs of foreign capital with a broadening of state-backed oligarchic national capital in non-tradable sectors. The chapter points out how strategies of external integration are intertwined with changing global geopolitical relations, manifesting in the increasing role of Russian and Chinese finance locally.
Agnes Gagyi, Tamás Gerőcs
Czechia 30 years On: An Imperfect Oligarchy Without Emancipatory Alternative
This chapter analyses the causes of the crisis of democracy in the Czech Republic and the possibilities of a chronological analysis of the transformation decades. The crisis of democracy is manifested in the Czech Republic above all by mass disillusionment with democratic politics, and by the open access of oligarchs to political power. Unlike approaches that see this turn as a discontinuity, the chapter describes it as one of the possible and logical results of the whole transformation process. This process is reconstructed as a competition between two capitalist factions and respective political projects: neoliberal nationalism and liberal globalism. The chapter presents a chronological analysis of the three post-communist decades based on the three periods of rule of various factions (1992–1998 neoliberal nationalist rule, 2002–2010 globalist rule, 2013–? oligarchic rule), and three interregna (1990–1992, 1997–2002, 2008–2013). The chapter describes the interests and composition of the factions which competed for power in the transformation decades, analyses the main problems they dealt with during the interregna (economic transformation, democracy, economic dependence) and then looks at the characteristics of the main competing discourses (the naturalness and morality of the market, civil society, democratic majoritarianism, discourse of colony, discourse of corruption).
Ondřej Slačálek, Daniel Šitera
Post-dissent and the New Right: Problems and Potential of post-Communist Dissent in Slovakia and Beyond
The chapter focuses on how the legacy of dissident antipolitics operates in the context of post-Communist Slovakia, and in particular in the context of the long predominance of the centrist nationalism of Vladimir Mečiar and the social nationalism of Robert Fico. While in Poland and Hungary the anti-communist legacy was used by conservatives in order to fight culture wars against liberals, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia this legacy served to create an alliance of conservatives and liberals in the struggle against “populism” and the “legacy of communism,” supporting a depoliticized struggle for “decent politics,” diverting attention from socio-economic issues. Thus, post-dissident framings can be used also for discourse policing to conceal a race to the bottom in social policy. This discourse is characterized by an accent on the image of a “decent” and “cultivated” civil society struggling against the state, which further strengthens the apolitical character of post-dissident opposition. At the same time, the chapter also shows how opposition to this post-dissident narrative can lead the left into the same political corner as national conservatives. In the conclusion, the author proposes a dialectical reaction to post-dissident rhetoric—to formulate a new dissident position adequate for the situation of real capitalism.
Joseph Grim Feinberg
The Shame Movement in the Context of Georgia’s 30 years of Transformation: A Gramscian Analysis of Civil Society
In this paper, we analyze one of the most recent civil society movements in Georgia, the Shame Movement. We choose this movement as it enables us to discuss some of the aspects of Georgia’s 30 years of post-socialist transformation from today’s perspective. Our key thesis is that the movement has been reinforcing the hegemonic neoliberal order in Georgia. To develop this argument, we apply the political economy perspective of Gramscian analyses of the state and civil society and speak from the position of Georgia’s newly emerging left-wing academic criticism. From that standpoint, this is one of the very first attempts to evaluate Georgia’s post-socialist state-society-economy relations. We hope that this attempt will be followed by further explorations of the emancipatory potential of civil society in Georgia.
Nino Khelaia, Tornike Chivadze
The Roots of the Moralization of Politics in Post-1989 Bulgaria and What It Means for the Left
Bulgaria seems to have produced no strong progressive left alternative despite having one of the highest rates of social inequality in the EU and facing rising poverty levels. This chapter argues that dominant anti-corruption discourses and policies, together with the moralization of politics and post-political tendencies, impede the articulation of viable left alternatives. The post-1989 changes were presented in very broad terms (for example, as “Europeanization”, “catching up with the West”), leaving debates over economic policies outside of public scrutiny. This framing naturalized and dehistoricized class antagonisms, and produced the illusion that the best policies simply needed to be implemented by honest technocrats. Discontent with rising inequalities appears not as a critique of liberal economic policy, but only of its political representatives—dishonest and corrupt politicians. This chapter traces the trajectory of the postsocialist Bulgarian left, situating it in the wider context of the moralization of politics.
Georgi Medarov
The New Protest Movements and the Left in Russia: To Overcome the Crisis of Hegemony
The chapter is considering contentious politics in Russia in the context of the permanent hegemony crisis that had been lasting over the last 30 years. The author analyzes how this context influenced the current political crisis and the protest mobilizations in Russia which are also considered against the background of recent protest movements and revolutions globally. The argument is made that the nowadays protest movement that challenges the Putin’s regime is a populist one. However, if populism in the left theory is defined as a hegemonic project that integrates various social demands into vague agenda, in a post-soviet context we deal with “populism by default” that avoids articulation of any social demands. Analyzing the outcomes of the recent revolutions in the post-soviet countries and beyond, the author claims that programmatically and ideologically vague movements are vulnerable for the risk of being appropriated by authoritarian leaders and elites. The author suggests what is to be done by the Russian left to overcome the crisis of hegemony by taking part in the protest movement.
Oleg Zhuravlev
Fear, Doubt and Money. War of Ideas, Production of Ignorance and Right-Wing Infrastructures of Knowledge and Hegemony in Poland
This chapter addresses the infrastructural background of major transformations of morality and rationality in Poland after 1989. In the Polish context, Karol Wojtyla as a Polish pope and the Solidarity movement contributed massively to the relegitimization of the Catholic Church, including its conservative wing, allowing for a massive influence in the post-socialist decades. Internationally, the 1960s and 1970s saw a crisis of progressive narratives about the emancipatory role of reason and the possibilities of the democratization of scientific and technical developments. On these planes, the 1980s marked a conservative counter-offensive. This was accelerated by the failure of real socialism as a promoter of the dream of the emancipatory function of reason and science. In ideological struggles, those who wanted to replace real socialism with science-based humanist future-oriented universalism (exemplified by Sakharov) were defeated by past-oriented particularisms (exemplified by Solzhenityn). The chapter describes the techniques of the conservative counter-offensive as FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), comparing it to PR campaigns of the tobacco industry or the strategies of climate change deniers. The author concludes the Left is weakened by its anti-institutional and anti-statist elements, and needs a focus on the material conditions of production and the promotion of ideas.
Andrzej W. Nowak
Conclusion: Seven Excursions into the Ideological Landscape of Eastern Europe
The concluding chapter discusses five nodes of postsocialist ideological struggles that the book’s authors addressed: anticommunism, Westernism, nationalism, irrationalism and antipolitics (through its three aspects of anti-corruption, civil society and technocratism). Slačálek characterizes these as discourses that are applied to obscure real social conflicts, but which at the same time rely on elements of real experience which can be critically reconstructed, and which can contribute to left-wing analyses and programs. He addresses anticommunism’s paralyzing effect on the local left together with the traps Ostalgia presents for new left politics; speaks of nationalist ideology as a means of autocratic and xenophobic politics, yet also a prism through which essential global power relationships become visible in popular politics; and investigates irrationalism as a powerful tool of neoliberal and neonationalist politics, yet also a ground of conflict that makes visible the political usages of reason and the need for the Left to develop a dialectical and self-critical rationality as a basis for its politics.
Ondřej Slačálek
The Political Economy of Eastern Europe 30 years into the ‘Transition’
Agnes Gagyi
Ondřej Slačálek
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