Don Kalb is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Central European University (Budapest), May 2014 (Butuceni village, R. of Moldova, ReSET summer school).
Andrei Cuşco: If I may, I would return to the question you were discussing previously with Petru and I completely agree that intellectuals do have a very important mission at this point and maybe that they need not worry about transferring their criticism into the public sphere as such, into a political mobilization. But still, while thinking about Eastern Europe – Moldova, Romania, the countries of the region, one cannot but have the impression that mobilizing the electorate, mobilizing the object of the concern is quite difficult. In Moldova, for example, you have one set of problems – poverty, emigration –, in Romania you have others, but if you look at the dynamics of the protests that swept the country, it was all very short lived, it was very poorly articulated, I think, in a way. So, my question would be – and I understand that it is a difficult question, that cannot be answered definitely, but nevertheless: how can this intellectual endeavor, this intellectual project lead to changes in the system, in the public awareness, in the mobilization of the population that actually effect the changes?
Don: Again, I am not pessimistic about this. We are at the beginning of a phase, of a cycle. And I also think that the mobilization in Central and Eastern Europe is part of much more global level mobilization. So, again, it is very important to look at the local and global properties. I do not think that the short duration or the lack of political effectiveness of the mobilizations in Romania or Bulgaria, for example, is exceptional. When you look at all mobilizations that have been up since 2008, then you understand that there are convulsions. Massive mobilizations, for a short time, very often based on people that became active for the first time in relation to official politics, got for the first time into the public sphere with it. Hence, the largely populist and moralist claims evaporated rapidly and had on the whole very little direct political consequences. ‘Occupy Wall-Street’ is not different from this. The Spanish ‘Indignados’ are not different. The Israeli waves of mobilizations have exactly similar properties. The only real exceptions about the absence of political effectiveness are in Latin America, but that has simply to do with the fact that you have left-wing governments in place there, in a growing economy that allows states a bit of space of manoeuver.
Andrei: Are there some channels, some practical possibilities to transfer our intellectual discussions and debates into the public sphere?
Don: I think that this is happening in any case. It was very clear, for example, that CriticAtac allowed the creation of a certain space for left-wing politics in Romania over the last years. And it has been, in fact, in that respect, very effective, with revelations, so to say, and it was very enabling for a while. Now we are looking back and conclude that it has not been enough. But this is something that is not in the control of the new activists. I was in fact pleasantly surprised about the high level of mobilization in Central and Eastern Europe over the last years and I think all of us were surprised. But, of course, now the question emerges of how to make these mobilizations more effective by creating stronger alliances between intellectuals and constituencies. That will not be so easy. And, again, I look at the global scale and I see that it is not easy anywhere. States are with their backs against the wall, global finance both triumphs and keeps endangering the whole set up, citizens meanwhile are exposed to ongoing austerity, indebtedness and social stagnation. Anger is only the most understandable reaction. Where we can get the political space for maneuver from, where the realistic openings are, is not so easy to see. And such openings, if they should be structural and strategic, can hardly be sustained on the national level.
There are particular problems related to this in Central and Eastern Europe that are more or less particular for the region, and one of them is of course that it will be difficult to bring the languages of socialism and the commons back. It is difficult to bring the concept of class back even while everyone hates the injustices, inequalities and social polarizations that we’re confronted with continually. Everybody can of course talk about poverty as something that is not good. But poverty is a political non-starter. All the big neoliberals are against poverty. Just like they’re all for economic growth’ as a solution for ‘poverty’, combined with a bit of philanthropy. We’re totally back in the middle ages in this respect. As if the forms of economic growth that we’ve been seeing are not predicated themselves on producing ever more inequality and polarization. It is difficult in CEE to bring the whole left-wing vocabulary back, including its local articulations, to re-appropriate it and inject it back into the local discourse. This is an objective historical difficulty. But it is slowly being overcome, I think. And I should add that it is also difficult in the West or in China, etc.
That is one. The second one is the fact of the particular sort of urbanization that ‘really existing socialism’ made possible and inscribed into the East European landscapes. So, the socialist urbanization, and it was true for Central and Eastern Europe and for the whole Soviet space, developed a lot of relatively small regional centers that were depended on very specialized industries or agrarian economies. And these small regional centers and the whole space of provincial cities have been hit very hard by neoliberal transition. This is also a space that is much less well educated than the capital cities, which are also economically doing much better, partly as comprador and rentier locations. So, what has developed over time in Central and Eastern Europe is a contradiction in fact between the popular discontent in the provinces and the provincial cities on the one hand and in the capital cities on the other, in ways that you do not see anymore in the West. Western urbanization led to a much more integrated urban space, more evenly integrated urban landscapes, even though, like in Central and Eastern Europe, provincial cities after 1989 tended to suffer much more from neoliberalism than the key bigger cities. But in the West, it never had the sort of completely divisive and bifurcating effects it had in Central and Eastern Europe. This is about the nature of urban systems. Now, Fidesz, and Jobik in particular, for example, have their strongest constituencies in the provinces. It is basically only in Budapest that social democrats remain more or less, at least in some neighborhoods, a little bit in place. So that is a political, economic, and cultural division that plays a big role in the limitations of the capacities of the new left to mobilize constituencies in Central and Eastern Europe. So clearly the constituencies of the new left tend to be located in the capital city, perhaps in one or two other cities, but the rest of the country, which is the majority of the population, is addressed more easily by the new Right on its way to becoming ever more radically nationalist and, as you say, ‘communists by default’, but without the class analysis, often also without the gender, and without the internationalism. But they do articulate the population against global capital and against the capital city and against and so to say the new rentier ‘nomenklaturas’ in the capital city. That, of course, is a populist politics that is structurally inscribed as a possibility in the urban systems of Central and Eastern Europe. Not just because there is a strong populist tradition – in Hungary Neprajz and all that – but I would say because of the collapse of the provincial economy in the post 1999 period and the socio-cultural logics set in motion by that – I have a relational-materialist explanation for that rather than a culturalist one. This remains a crucial aspect of the disappointments with the East European Left, and it will be hard to overcome the obstacles put in its way by these historically as well as contemporarily produced forms of urban unevenness. It will be difficult to get electoral majorities for the left, in particular in the provinces. But you will nevertheless need to work in that direction and challenge the populists on their own terrain.
So, again, this underlines the importance of the intellectual work that you are doing. Taking intellectual positions that force all the other positions to rethink their own positions let them crumble. That is a very important part of the work that you will have to do even though you may not be able to mobilize electoral majorities for the new left political agenda.
These things are slightly different in Western Europe or in the US, though not very different elsewhere. But do not forget that in Western Europe left-wing parties also fail to mobilize electoral majorities behind them. You are absolutely not alone with your disappointments. I continue to think that these are global processes with particular local and regional articulations, rather than idiosyncratic local processes that can be compared with other idiosyncratic local processes and be found wanting.
Petru: Putting Andrei’s question more bluntly, is the political fight, in terms of political parties and political doctrines, political strategies, is that a possible political alternative project for these left-wing marginal intellectuals or academics?
Don: I think what you are doing is deeply political. I don’t think there is an ontological separation between intellectual work, academic work and political work. In practical terms you see of course different sorts of activities. You see different sorts of personalities who are involved in this sort and in that sort of work. But you are doing political work when you are formulating political positions, and mobilizing the intellectual power for thinking about the problems of a particular space or era. That is deeply political. This is the core of political work. But of course you need alliances with different sorts of people: you need alliances with artists; with other ‘certified’ movements such as around gender and the environment; and ultimately and inevitably with labor. Whether you can build them, does not depend on you alone. But you need to seek a conversation, in any case. I would always warn against the self-satisfied intellectualism that is interested only in being invited to saloons in Chisinau and on television. It is important to say what you think; it is important to get on the television; but there is a lot of daily work to be done in creating new alliances and new conversations with other sectors of society that allow you to understand actually what is in fact going on, too. That’s also question of the sort of research that you do; it is not just intellectual positions, it is also about research programs. So you need to know what happens with labor, you need to know what are the everyday problems of let’s say single parent families, you need to know what happens with people who migrate and the sorts of local commitments and local visions that emerge from an experience of migration. So, these are research agendas, as well as political agendas, but if you do that sort of work seriously, you are doing what you need to do.
Intellectual work is about carving out or attacking hegemonic positions in an intellectual field. Intellectual fields are the substance of political programs and they consist to a good extent of coining, thinking, rethinking, re-appropriating the necessary concepts that can help to interpret society, that can help us guide our interventions in historical processes. I think therefore what you are doing with the platform is the inevitable first step.
There is a lot of work to be done, but I am absolutely not skeptical about this. I am in fact hopeful. And that hopefulness is a realistic position, because everywhere, and also in Moldova, you will see that the neoliberal state will be losing its legitimacy and people will continue to feel deep misgivings about the direction of development that a society like Moldova, as well as others in the region and the world, are taking. A life of drudgery in a world of plenty cannot be explained. So, the mass mobilizations that you have seen after 2010 are in that sense only the beginning of a new cycle. And that cycle will be more confrontational and less oriented toward piecemeal social engineering than the western cycle from 1975 to 1999. And the cycle will be local, regional, European and global, with multiple local inflections arranged around a hard global core of problems. That is the field in which you are going to play.
Petru: How could we actually articulate the final objective of the left-wing, the new left platforms or political parties? Is this social justice? Some liberal thinkers could say that it is also a liberal aim. So, what is the final aim of the new-left parties and thinkers?
Don: The answer is in fact very simple. Any left-wing politics at the moment needs to rethink what capitalism is, as a global process, with particular local manifestations, as a process that shapes societies, not only economies, but whole societies. And what are the substance and the possibilities for an anti-capitalist politics. So, you used the word ‘justice’, and you are entirely right to say that it is also a liberal word, and even a conservative one. Don’t forget that! We compete on the terrain of justice.
The problem with the neo-liberalization of the left over the last thirty years is precisely that they forgot about analyzing capitalism. People even don’t know what capitalism is. People think that capitalism doesn’t exist. They think that is about some people being rich and some people being poor. Capitalism is about the private generation and the private control over the social surplus. Our societies are in fact pretty rich, including Moldova, and altogether they are pretty rich, but what is being done with the surplus is entirely determined by a very small group – the owners of these economies. And they demand profit rates and interest rates from us that make their capital a good investment. If they don’t get these from profit rates or interest rates, they go on strike, they make us unemployed, and they make us poor, they push us to new sorts of life that we don’t chose. Migration is an excellent outcome of that. It’s an excellent example of how that works. So, whole populations, whole spaces, and whole societies are continuously being devalued and revalued within capitalism in ways that occur because of what capitalists think is right for them. That is deeply antidemocratic and deeply anti-sovereign and very anti-autonomous. It is in fact what David Graeber talks about when he remarks that we are slaves.
What we need is a radical unwillingness to be thrown in the fray just like that, a rejection of situations that we have no choice and no control over. And we need to find ways to actually condemn that condition of slavery, analyzing it in a radical way and coming up with potential revindicative political options. This is fundamentally about power in society. That is what the new left needs to think of. So, taking very seriously, in a less intellectual, but a more democratic sense, and in a humanist sense, taking very seriously the desires, needs and despairs of people, their deeper frustrations. That is really essential. And starting from there, I think it is good to think about the mobilizations of the last years. So many groups of people are being broad into demonstrations and “occupies” and camps, etc. And actually are starting to engage in a conversation about what is keeping their lives back. Taking the wish of people very seriously to be autonomous, to be able to run their lives in satisfying ways. Emancipation, we used to call it. Bringing very basic things about emancipation, about autonomy, and having a satisfying measure of control over your life, bring that back. And that is much more than ‘social justice’. And I think the function of the left in this whole process is to show that we need an anti-capitalist politics for this.
And it happens on the global and on the local level. We need to understand all the specificities together with all the generalities, and the generalities that show up as local particularities and the local particularities that are in fact an outcome of or an answer to worldwide regularities. This is a global process. I also think that we learn a lot from each other all the time, but we are of course analyzing specific locations within this global process. So, the Moldovan experience, or the experience of Moldovan migrants, or female migrants and male migrants and the ways families are being run, etc. etc. is of course particular. So, I understand these particular experiences as crucial for the program as a whole, but it is necessary to see that they are not exceptional – the Baltics too are a massive labor export location, as are the small countries in the Caribbean or in Central Asia. This is part of the uneven global process as it hits particular locations, and we are never the only persons and the only group of people who are being affected by our particular experiences. I go to Kyrgyzstan in a week and the situation there has in some respects strikingly similar properties as in Moldova. Comparison is important, learning from each other is important, but altogether this is not about a story from here compared with a story from there, it is not about piecemeal politics in place A and B. It is not that we can leave most things in place as they are and then redress a bit here and retouch a bit there. We ought to be looking into the heart of the beast.
Petru: This is a difficult aim and project…
DK: And we will fail! But the really interesting thing is to fail with grace and dignity.
Photography by Anastasia Felcher.