Interview with Don Kalb, Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Central European University (Budapest), May 2014 (Butuceni village, R. of Moldova, ReSET summer school)

Patricipants: Don Kalb, Petru Negură, Alex Voronovici, Andrei Cuşco.


Pentru traducerea în română a interviului, accesaţi această legătură.

Petru Negură: To start the discussion, I wonder about the socialist and communist parties in the post-socialist countries, whether these parties still may be considered as left-wing parties, in the classical sense of the term…

Don Kalb: No, that would be a nonsensical use of the term Left. These are first of all elite formations. During the whole transition project after 1989 all political parties have been elite congregations. ‘Transition’ was an elite driven project. Even in Poland, despite Solidarność, this was the case. All the popular forces that rallied against the continued integration into the Soviet Union evaporated very rapidly after that. They only came back in short convulsive moments, for example the mass protests in 1993 against the Polish Government and against austerity, or the „Mineriade”. Parties were the visible face of small networks of strategically located/ situated actors who were closely linked to the privatization of the economy and who extracted their funds and their legitimacy from that. So it is no wonder that they remained basically shell formations, in a sense, not political parties as we knew classically in what we now call Western Europe, the popular Left parties that emerged in the 19-20th centuries around the national citizenship and national democracy projects, such as the German SPD or the Swedish social democrats, and which had decades to expand their membership by mobilizing for popular political goals such as pension systems, labor regulation, education, etc., building inclusive welfare states. That was not the case in Eastern Europe after 1989. Transition was always about articulating liberal rights, not about expansive social welfare.  But don’t forget that this has been a very general development all over the ‘developed world’ after 1989. So, the very popular parties in Western Europe – popular at some point – have seen their membership dwindle over the last thirty years. It is a common neoliberal property that the party as such becomes an elite party, as Peter Mair has claimed. It is one of the tragedies of Central and Eastern Europe. But if you look at the German SPD, which lasted during the whole 20th century – excepting some terrible episodes – as the party with the largest membership in the whole Western world, this has been decimated over the last 20 years. Same so for the French, British, Dutch and Swedish labor parties. So it is a general phenomenon that under neoliberal capitalism the popular participation in the political process dwindles. And this has to do with the lack of popular legitimacy of the state and the lack of legitimacy of politicians that springs therefrom. In the East European case, the elite character of parties gave an enormous space to the governments of transition to do what they thought what had to be done.

Petru: Many observers remarked that ‘left-wing’ parties (especially in Eastern Europe), while being in power, play the same neoliberal game. So one could wonder what is actually the role of Left-wing parties, in the current (post-Socialist) context.

Don: But these are not Left-wing parties. I think we should stop to use this epithet for them. I haven’t seen any real left-wing party emerge in Central and Eastern Europe during the last 20 years. These are generally very neoliberal parties. They agree with the Washington consensus of privatization, liberalization, and stabilization of the currency as the necessary building stones of all politics. That’s what they do, and that’s how they define their programs, even though they may add a bit of welfare here and a subsidy there. It was one of the reasons why the Social-Democratic Party in Hungary, for example, had been constantly losing out in the last years of its rule: its determination to privatize health… The same story in the Czech Republic. These World Bank coordinated programs – or World Bank recommended programs – of continued privatization of public services, it is something that the so-called left-wing parties seem happy to subscribe to. Well, this is not Left-wing.

It is not surprising that the best technocrats in Central and Eastern Europe have been part during the last 25 years of the socialist or social-democratic parties. Technocrats everywhere, also in Eastern Europe, tend to cluster around Social-Democrats: they are secular; they are educated professionals, more urban, etc., etc. But the Social-Democratic project was increasingly hooked onto the neo-liberal agenda. And what you saw in response to that is that the Conservative parties become more popular and more populist, and start to articulate neo-nationalist and indeed literally ‘national-socialist’ rhetoric against the Social-Democrats on their privatizing spree. The rhetoric of the Kaczynski’s or Orban has always been populist and illiberal, seeking to punish those who have deceived the nation and are corrupting and stealing from ‘the people’. I know that this anti-neoliberalism is just the surface and that the Right has hardly an alternative on offer. Over the last five years privatized pension systems have been re-socialized both in Hungary and Poland, in Hungary by a conservative government and in Poland by a Central-Left government. Ideology mattered little. The arguments were largely economic and fiscal.

Petru: Are then these conservative populist parties a kind of “Communist” parties by default, because of being anti-Liberal?

Don: The way you phrase the question is very East-European. No one in Western Europe would ever call right wing populist parties ‘communist by default’. You speak from a particular experience of the degeneration of Communism under state socialism, of course. But the Conservative parties may play rhetorically the tune of anti-Liberalism, anti-EU even, anti-Cosmopolitanism, populism, sing the virtues of the homegrown common people, and so on… But they basically completely accept the privatized, capitalist economy. So, this gets back to your conservative intellectuals and the question you posed about that in an earlier discussion. These are parties that play the conservative tune, but don’t really have a political and economic alternative for neoliberal state formation. Orban is a very good example. He is the vanguard. Orban would even talk about privatized public utilities that should according to him not be allowed to make profits. So, it sounds nicely radical and it is what people like to hear after the experience of privatizing the utilities to transnational capitalists that do hardly invest in them and extract lots of revenue from them. The utility prices are indeed very high. You have people with a pension of 250 euros paying 150 euros for heating in the winter; that’s nothing else than pure poverty, of course. So people like to hear these stories, but Orban has never suggested that he would re-socialize the public utilities. He did it with pensions, for good fiscal reasons, but he is not going to re-socialize the generation and distribution of gas or electricity. Nor is he going to invest in a top-notch public health system. So these are the contradictions of the whole conservative project.

Petru: Going back to the discussion about intellectuals, there are in Eastern and Central Europe more and more left-wing platforms so to say, like Krytyka Polityczna in Poland, CriticAtac in Romania or Platzforma in Moldova. But these remain quite limited in their action and audience. My concern is that these left-wing platforms will remain quite elitist projects.

Don: I am not pessimistic about this. It remains elitist, but this is part of the fight to reeducate the elites and help to reform the education of the elites of the future. It is also necessary in order to bring all the accelerating contradictions of the system as such, not just in any individual country but worldwide, on the table. An attack on the ongoing denial of deep crisis. So, this is necessary and has to be done. It remains initially of course intellectualist in this phase, but the fight for intellectual contents and for the legitimacy of left-wing, intellectual programs and projects – at universities for example, but also in the public sphere –, is an essential one, it is the beginning of the fight back. Without articulating new intellectual positions and rallying people around them, getting democratic discussions around these things going, without that first step, we can forget about any rollback of the conservative capitalist hegemony. So I think what you are doing is really good and really essential, and I am absolutely not skeptical about this at all. Whether you will succeed in helping create a more democratic and dynamic public sphere, and a more intelligent left-wing oriented public culture, that is the second question. But this does not depend on what you are doing now. What you’re doing now is the first step and you’re not in control of all the next steps. Whether it’s going to be effective doesn’t depend on you.

I am optimistic about the emergence of a new cohort of intellectuals that will certainly be less conservative than the incumbent elites. This cohort is already emerging and will crystallize in the next 20 years. I am not very sanguine about parties though. As long as states remain locked into the neoliberal course, it will be very difficult for the state to regain wider legitimacy and it will be unlikely that popular constituencies will reengage themselves with formal politics.

Alex Voronovici: I have all these double questions around the same core. You just said that you have worked with this younger generation that somehow reacts to the conservative post-communist elites. And I would be interested in knowing where do they bring their inspiration from in doing this, whether it is from Western academia or it is a local product. And the second part of this question, probably a bit more general: how should these left-wing movements in Central and Eastern Europe formulate their agenda? Should they orient toward some more global, international scale, or should they take into consideration some local specificities? And what kind of specificities would then play a role in these agendas?

Don: These are important questions, but difficult to think about it, because the polarization of local and global does not work in these things. The sorts of societies that are emerging after 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe are not the result of just local choices or local popular will or experience. These are much more complex processes, and they are continuously embedded in larger frames. Already the fall of Socialism was itself embedded structurally in much more global processes, in things that are happening both here and elsewhere, processes of indebtedness, the sort of policy paradigms that were emerging within the West and among the global governmental apparatuses, our relationships globally. The local and the global cannot be talked off as if they are totally different worlds, and as if they are separable. The global is indeed in the local and the local is continuously emerging as part of the global.

Coming back to your first question, there is no doubt that the emergent new cohorts of young left-wing intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe have learned a lot from anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist theorizing and research in the West. How could it be otherwise?  Don’t forget that around 2000 there was still a strong official and intellectual consensus in Central and Eastern Europe about privatization and about neoliberal directions in policy, whereas in the West it was already becoming much more contested. Of course, the neoliberal turn has been contested from the very beginning. Or perhaps it is actually inaccurate to say that in the West you have a longer historical experience fighting neoliberalism. Don’t forget that the fight against the Communist parties in the 1980s was very much a fight against neo-liberalizing Communist parties, such as in Poland, or a fight against parties that were paying off their Western debts and squeezing their populations in ever more authoritarian ways, such as in Romania or the GDR. But it was posed in terms of anti-Communism, whereas in the West broadly similar popular disillusions were aimed at conservative parties that were pushing through a capitalist restoration from above. That fight was gradually and increasingly framed as an anti-capitalist fight.  Intellectuals like Stuart Hall, David Harvey – UK left-wing intellectuals played a big role in this fight, worldwide, because they were at the beginning of the discovery of what the neoliberal global transition was all about. So, it is no wonder that the new cohorts, both in the West and in Eastern Europe learned from that, just like I learned from that. But the idea that Central European leftist intellectuals are just let the local departments of purely Western paradigms, I think is completely crazy. This is not true. Do also not forget that Western leftist milieus are highly varied, speaking with very different tongues, very different styles, and incorporating very different experiences – just think of the English, the American, the French or the Italian Left. The common ground among Toni Negri, Alain Badiou, and David Harvey is not overwhelming.  And again, the newly emerging left-wing intellectuals from Central and Eastern Europe have an absolutely particular style.

Don’t ignore that very strong export product from CEE in global anti-capitalism: Slavoj Žižek. Everybody immediately sees in the West that this is not a Western guy. And the sort of reasoning that he employs is certainly not radically Western. Žižek, coming from Slovenia and having had this socialist and post-socialist experience has added to the whole anti-capitalist discourse in the West a much keener awareness of the let’s say cultural totality of capitalism. Much of the theorizing of Anglo-Saxon left-wing intellectuals was focused on political economy. The radical breakthrough to populist cultural philosophy was certainly partly produced by Žižek. Not alone, of course. There were people like Fredric Jameson. But he was influential among a relatively narrow stratum of intellectuals. Not the sort of pop philosopher that Žižek has become. His breakthrough to a sort of populist cultural anti-capitalist critique has very strong East-European or post-socialist features of style and substance. But really, all of us are acting and thinking within a global sphere of conversation, experience, and exchange. And all add particular accents to that.

So, again, local/global polarization does not work in our local/globalized world. Of course, local and global remain somehow valid as methodological distinctions, different starting points as it were, because we will remain puzzled for a longer while about the multiscalar spaces that we inevitably seem to inhabit, and we are still trying to come to terms with that. So we all are thinking in the impossible terms of local and global. So, it is a methodological distinction, but not an ontological one.

And the same is true for party formation. Political actors certainly learn from others, and their basic categories are essentially global categories, but there they only are effective if they develop particular local styles and priorities. The danger, of course, for the new cohort of left-wing intellectuals is that they remain satisfied with merely carving out a niche in the global conversation. That is what of course they should not do. They will certainly have to add to the global conversation, extract important insights and create alliances within that, but ultimately, of course, politics, also intellectual politics, needs to respond to the actual experiences, perceptions and needs of people in the territories that are the building blocks of our modern political drama: national states. Even though the clue to what is happening in these states and with these populations is not necessarily local at all. So, it is all about dialectics.

(To be continued)

Photography: Don Kalb (by Anastasia Felcher)