Biljana Vankovska: Reclaiming Utopia

Biljana Vankovska: Reclaiming Utopia

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Biljana Vankovska
TFF Associate

13 september, 2021

Contribution to GTI Forum(Great Transition Initiative) Can Human Solidarity Globalize?

To envision a better world of tomorrow calls for great courage because the dominant paradigm reads There Is No Alternative. Or, to quote the Borg from the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, “Resistance is futile!” It is how the imagination of another now (to refer to Yanis Varoufakis’s book) is kept imprisoned. The aim is to silence and discourage all thoughtful, rebellious, and critical minds (and groups). Critique is tolerated if it is not too radical (i.e., does not go deep to the root causes of the present inequalities and suffering) and if it comes mostly from the Western (“more civilized”) part of the world.

Originally published at The Great Transition Initiative

We, the people from the Global South, however, have much to say about the past, present, and future of this world. And most of all, about the lack of global solidarity—since we are on the “recipient side” of the crumbs of charity, assistance, and empathy.

Strangely, even we who used to live in an acting utopia of former Yugoslavia have almost forgotten the unique experiences of socialism with a human face, non-aligned foreign policy, self-management, and the culture of peace with which we grew up.

The free and universal health care (along with free and accessible education and retirement system) was based on the solidarity principle. Even the traces in today’s intrinsic solidarity with the Palestinians, Iraqis, or any other oppressed groups comes from the old school system based on values of non-enmity, antimilitarism, global solidarity, and belief in international law.

Yugoslavia was far from a perfect country, yet it was the closest realization of the ideals of the Paris Commune. The Yugoslav leadership and population did not fear to think beyond the two dominant mantras of Western capitalism and individualism and Eastern state socialism and collectivism.

The peace researcher Hakan Wiberg once compared Yugoslavia (with its internal diversities and contradictions) to a flawed butterfly that was not meant to fly but, not knowing that, flew for several decades. The successor states almost overnight embraced the TINA principle and sought to make any past achievement and legacy obsolete and non-inspirational.

The so-called international community has been insisting on the heavy feeling of guilt, shame, and self-blame for the bloody conflicts of the 1990s. Instead of imprisoned imagination, here one can talk of killed imagination (and utopia).

For many of us, it is of utmost importance to evoke Karl Marx’s warning from 1852: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

We gave up the positive and even heroic achievements of our predecessors, and instead embraced the traditions of the past generations in the West as guidance for the allegedly inevitable (bright!) future. Instead of seeking friends and showing empathy and solidarity with the ones who are in a more miserable position, we have been confronted with (newly invented) enemies at home and abroad, take part in imperial endeavors of our new colonial masters, and teach our children that war is peace and peace is war.

Self-management (in economic, political, and societal terms) used to be a school of participatory democracy and mutual solidarity among the members of the community/communities of Yugoslavia and with the wider world.

Egoism, competition, and self-interests are the driving forces for the new generation of “entrepreneurs.” How to work subversively, especially from within academia, is the challenge I face every day. Planting the seeds of critical thinking and dissent is essential, and yet possible: step by step, day by day, patiently and stubbornly against the mainstream.

Without personal freedom and self-awareness of the pandemic of inequality that has long preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, there can be no collective action toward a common goal and global solidarity.

The promotion of various forms of global solidarity is a luxury of rare (yet courageous) people able and free enough to work on the global cause. One should not disregard and disrespect much less significant efforts on a micro level that take place every day. Solidarity grows from within small communities, and only then expand and embrace wider spaces of our Earthland.

But those small heroes often need moral and intellectual support. The resistance against social injustices is well-alive despite the grim general picture of the world, but it lives in small pockets of society. It calls for a trigger to be awakened—such as mass tragedies and misfortunes.

Even the once war-ravaged part of former Yugoslavia still has the potential to provide for an outburst of mass solidarity in a time of need (be they floods, earthquakes, etc.). Bearing in mind that all these “natural catastrophes” are in essence a result of social decay and structural violence embedded in unjust and repressive institutional arrangements, this is obviously not enough.

Solidarity could be sustainable only if institutionalized and yet not alienated from the people the system should serve.

In April 2020, Arundhati Roy hoped that the pandemic was a portal, i.e., a gateway between one world and the next. Indeed, the world is changing even faster than we thought, but there is no guarantee that the results will be positive.

The COVID-19 pandemic is just a test for everything else: if we manage to disempower Big Pharma, then anything else will be possible. Our common struggle for a better world should be carried out on many levels and in many forms.

Obviously, this is (again) a time of monsters, and we need to synthesize the feelings of pessimism and optimism, and to transcend them in а Gramscian way: while our minds may be pessimistic, we should mobilize as many people with strong and optimistic wills as possible.

What should be our common and most urgent goals in this endeavor? Palestine and the pandemic response come first to mind: these urgent affairs combine the local with the planetary! Ending Israeli apartheid and making COVID-19 vaccines (and eventually cures) a global public good.

The next step should be universal health care, along with the universal basic income. Global civil society (not the one deliberatively created and funded by power centers in order to promote the liberal agenda or even the status quo) must reclaim its independence from any limitations imposed by geopolitical “realism.”

Free market, neoliberal status quo, and militaristic interventionism “for the sake of humanitarianism” or R2P are not outcomes of any natural laws; they are all man-made and their sustainability depend inter alia on current hegemony of knowledge.

Let’s reimagine and adopt a sense of possibility because There Are Thousands of Alternatives (TATA) should be our guiding star. By labeling something as utopia, we immediately give up the sense of possible-ism.

We have no other choice but to embark on the path fueled by necessity and desire, without being ashamed by our inherent need to dream and work for a better world.

While being guided by TATA principle, there is just one thing we are not allowed to disregard: the bio-political imperatives that imperil human survival and ecological balance call for unprecedented cooperative energies turned loose.

Originally published at The Great Transition Initiative

About the author

Biljana Vankovska

Biljana Vankovska is Professor of International Relations and Peace Studies at Saints Cyril and Methodius University. She has been a pioneer in peace and conflict studies in Macedonia. Vankovska has been a Guest Senior Research Fellow at Copenhagen Peace Research Institute (COPRI), a faculty member at European Peace University in Stadschlaining, and a Senior Fellow at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF). She is an International Advisor of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Studies (TFF) in Lund. She holds a PhD in philosophy from Saints Cyril and Methodius University.

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2 Responses to "Biljana Vankovska: Reclaiming Utopia"

  1. Biljana Vankovska   November 29, 2021 at 10:54 am

    Thank you for sharing this story, dear Gitte! I also come from the working class: my father worked in the print house on a linotype machine. I may be quite nostalgic for the time when workers’ families could have decent lives, educate their children, provide them summer holidays and small tourist tours to the neighbouring countries, etc. By the way, today is the Republic Day (birthday of AVNOJ Yugoslavia as of 1943) and many of us reflect on the life, values, ideals, solidarity and openness to the world that we enjoyed then, while seeing the broken and impoverished nation states of today who are pawns on the chess table of the global powers, while the corporations have been exploiting all natural resources and polluted the nature. It’s now the desert of postcommunism and neoliberalism.
    Best wishes,

  2. gittehector   September 17, 2021 at 7:54 am

    Thank you to Biljana and to TFF for posting this essay.

    Back in 1972 I with my bus group of 10 students and our teacher at DNS International Teacher Training College, were travelling through Yugoslavia on our way to Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India. the engine of our big bus that was at least 20 years old, and well worn out, but therefor also so cheap to buy that our meager budget sufficed, broke down for the first time – it happened many times since then. The daylight was just about to disappear, some of us went down under the bus, others tried to keep the spirit up by cooking a nice pot of tea. But in the end we gave up at around 10 pm. After all none of us were skilled mechanics, and some spare parts were probably also needed. We knew about the worker owned and managed factories and workshops for which Yugoslavia was world famous, at least among young not so traditionally thinking people. So we found an assembly factory for trucks (don’t remember the brand). It was open through the night, and we immediately bonded with a large groups of very professional workers, and in 3-4 hours we were on the wheels again. Even after almost 50 years, I have never forgot that factory and its people. They were clearly not working just because they had to put food on the table every day. It was their enterprise, they were proud of it, they loved their work, and they loved working together, also with us. They practiced solidarity and thrived from it, like the plant enjoy the sun.
    This culture was smashed and splintered to pieces, because it did not fit the neoliberalist powers that still governs the world’s people. I hope, no I actually believe that the seeds that were sown in Yugoslavia and other East European countries this many years ago have not been sown in vain. Some of us have not forgot, and when we continue to pass on our knowledge and understanding to the next generations, and – most importantly – transform our understanding into practical actions, we will endure – there is no other option.

    Many greetings, Gitte


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