Toni Prug: Student Control Over the Faculty in Croatia

The History of Financial Violence and The Directly Democratic Response

In the twenty years since the nationalist takeover of state power in Croatia, the idea of collective good, beyond its mandatory and narrow identification with the nation, has  been absent from public discourse. In those rare moments when it appeared on the margins of public life, evoking the economic aspects of the collective, the state and media were successful in containing it, narrowing it down, rephrasing it ideologically, and preventing it from spreading in undesired forms [1]. For the previous forty five years, Croatian citizens have enjoyed the benefits of free education and health care. Even the most efficient ideological engine, the liberal parliamentary capitalist one, could not erase that over night. As less and less remains in the carcasses of industries to be ripped apart and stolen from the people (in Yugoslavian socialism, they were formally owned by the people, not the state, see Branko Horvat), the capitalist vultures turned to one of the remaining mainstays of the 45-year socialist project: free education and health.  Their problem this time was that they found a formidable opponent.

The privatization of education has been introduced gradually – most likely in the hope that no one would notice. Not this time.

Two large student occupations at the faculty of Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb, one in spring 2009 (lasting for thirty-five days) and one in the autumn (lasting for fourteen days), were executed through a series of strategic moves. Taking control over faculties spread in several cities and the network of students that came out of it still actively developing. From the single, simple, and yet powerful demand, ‘free publicly financed education on all levels available to all’,  through strategic openness, discipline in organization, refusal of negotiations, different anonymous students reading announcements for media each time, no spokepersons or leaders (making personalized attacks by the state and media impossible), fury of constant activity on theory, translations and publishing, theoretical reading groups, linkup and support for rebelling workers and peasant; constant documentation of the work they do; creation of 70 page long The Occupation Cookbook [2] and Workers-Peasants FAQ (frequently asked questions) printed and distributed to occupied factories. Through all this students have stunned the state-capitalist machinery and pushed it on the back foot. Consequently it has been forced to defend and in many cases in publicly discuss what has thus far been a standard process of the Croatian political-economic life: uncritical implementation of the worst aspects of the neoliberal doctrine [3]. This was by no means the usual ‘we don’t like neoliberal educational reforms’ chant from the Left supplanted by student activism, but a constantly theorized and developed, coordinated attack on the ideological foundations of capitalism in Croatia and its parliamentary undemocratic form, through which the enormous amount of socially distributed wealth produced in Croatia under socialism has been first destroyed, then stolen under the premise of dysfunctionality.

Unusually, only regular classes were blocked – the administration, the library, the bookshop and other facilities within the faculty building were allowed to function as usual. Radically open plenums (plenary assemblies), ‘at which all decisions were made concerning the functioning of the occupied faculty’ were open for participation and voting to everyone who turned up, and not just to students. Code of conduct spells out the details of respectful behavior, student guards and their role, care for property, passive resistance if the police turns up, and many other details [4]. Most important is their directly democratic aspect:

The plenum cannot at any time elect a representative that can make decisions or agree to certain terms on his/her own. The plenum can only elect delegates which communicate the decisions and the will of the plenum, as well as pass back offers and questions to be considered by the plenum. This method of electing delegates, which is the only truly democratic way, excludes the possibility of manipulating individual representatives.

Viktor Ivančić, co-founder of Feral, the long-standing and best critical political journal of the past twenty years, and the sharpest political commentator, puts it succinctly:

Depersonalizing their public appearances, organizing student plenums (plenary open to all citizens) daily, rejecting selecting of the delegates or charismatic leaders, refusing negotiation scuffles and tradings, girls and boys from the Faculty of Philosophy have unmasked the lie of the so called representative democracy, which is, after passing through party and interparty machines, manifested as an  authoritarian model. [5]

Ivančić’s thinking cuts to the bone: not only have the students demonstrated, for almost a year, the possibility of a new model of participatory, inclusive direct democracy in practice, but they keep showing the extent to which capitalist parliamentary model is corrupt, undemocratic, and directly against the interest of everyone but a tiny minority. A central argument students bring to the fore, which cancels the core tenet – financial independence based on managing its own resources – of the nationalist state project to a large extent, is that by entering the EU the national state is signing away wide range of rights and benefits that the vast majority of citizens had in abundance under (international) Yugoslav socialism.

Financial violence

The rosy picture that neoliberal revolutionaries have painted for the past thirty years, which directly and violently shaped the fortunes of both Yugoslavia and Croatia, has perished with the financial crashes of 2008. The logic is almost painfully simple: had not the state intervened in the markets with huge amounts of money, effectively nationalizing large parts of the financial sector, it would have collapsed.  In an interview in summer 2009, Alistair Darling, the UK financial minister, admitted: on the most critical weekend in the 2008, UK was hours away from the two of the four largest banking shutting their cash machines on Monday morning [6][7]. Not once have i seen this point brought up in terms of its possible consequences. Once two out of four largest banks stopped giving the cash out, I doubt the ensuing events would have been peaceful.

This is a scenario that was a significant factor in the breakup of Yugoslavia, and in the social disorders and wars in other states subject to neoliberal violence: physical violence is preceded by financial violence.  The conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) upon Yugoslavia in the early 1980s in order that it pay back its debt gave rise to nationalist groups, and eventually assisted them in claiming their stake on the power, transforming their nationalism opportunistically into an anti-socialist project. The Yugoslav state was unable to withstand financial violence: it fell apart in the war lead by nationalists seizing the moment of crisis, exploiting the long period of citizens had to queue for basic foods like milk and bread, resulting from the Yugoslav leadership’s failure to defend from IMF pressure.  In the early 2000s, after a decade of systemic destruction and theft of the state economy by the Croatian government and its criminal accomplices, Croatia sold off its entire banking system, earning the praise of the EU for privatization, for ‘liberalizing’ over 94 per cent of the financial sector [8]. Croatia thus repeated the Yugoslav socialists’ mistake from 1980s: failing to defend itself from imperialist financial attacks, it thereby weakened itself drastically, narrowing the possibilities for state intervention in a time of crisis. Although the decisions made by Rohatinski, the governor of Croatia’s National Bank, can be seen as proof that the Croatian state still has mechanisms of internal economic protection from external financial upheaval, the worst economically is yet to come for Croatia.

A recent report compiled by the Austrian National Bank paints a depressing picture of rapidly growing debt and declining production [9]. Croatian foreign debt was around €10 billion in 2000; at the end of 2009 it was over €42 billion, close to 100 per cent of GDP. To demonstrate how cheaply the banking was sold off:  Splitska Banka, Croatian third biggest bank, was evaluated at €150 million at the time of its sale to first private owners in 2000. When the bank was sold to its current owner for €1 billion in 2006, its assets were estimated at €3.2 billion [10:66]. Between 1993 and 2002, around 75 percent of foreign investment was ‘related to privatisation projects, mainly in the banking, telecommunications and pharmaceutical sector’ [8:40]. In other words, it was not investment, but a sell-off of massively undervalued assets built up during socialism.  To make it worse, banking was cleared of bad debt prior to sale, ‘restructured and  consolidated’ at ‘high costs’ of €5.6 billion [8:42] (€15 billion according to debates in Croatian parliament), far outstripping the price banks were sold for. ‘Privatization’ was a series of criminal acts of state leaders.

This history of financial violence, imposed from outside, but accepted and executed internally, is the story of a repeated mistake – the 1980s in Yugoslavia, the 2000s in Croatia – with no lessons learnt by the ruling political elites, so far.  A correct way to be truthful to students occupations in Croatia is to speak up against this violence, against neo-liberalism, imperialism and capitalism, and for new egalitarian political projects, based not any more on the twentieth century militaristic hierarchical and representative models (the political party, parliament, the unions), but on directly democratic models of political organization, starting in the workplace.

Few peoples of the world have more to say on this topic, having witnessed its failure and learnt from it, then the people of ex-Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia’s self-management was a bold yet failed effort whose theoretical re-evaluation is overdue. The technologies for self-management and direct democracy did not exist at the time to make such participative model efficient, or open, or transparent or accountable to its egalitarian political subjects and to the society at large.  The actions of Croatian students show that the means of communication and organization (as well as the means of production of discourses and organizations) we have at our disposal today allow for a new, directly democratic set of organizational structures and processes – blogs, email lists, plenary sessions, working groups, all used without representative bodies. However, for their utilization to be effective, many strategic political decisions, informed by the application of theory to the concrete situation in which intervention occurs, have to be made, and, most importantly, carried out with discipline.

One of the most active working groups, and perhaps the most important one in terms of the political aspect of the student occupations, is one for ‘spreading ideas and establishing the practice of direct democracy’. Its primary tasks so far have been taking part in writing, printing and distribution of the Workers-Peasants FAQ, in visiting worker-occupied factories and strikes, and holding lectures in high schools on direct democracy.

Work of all involved in this student initiative made representative student bodies looking like a relic of history. Simultaneously, the neoliberal capitalist ripping of Croatia has been brought – by student’s highly intelligent, disciplined and strongly theoretically founded actions and strategic decisions – into the public discourse, something hardly imaginable in 2008.

Not only do rebelling Croatian students deserve our unconditional support and comradely critique; it will be a missed opportunity for the left anti-capitalist struggle if their work is not assisted, studied and reapplied appropriately to other contexts. One of the founding approaches of many martial arts disciplines is to utilize the force in the field of struggle: a force directed against us is often best not confronted frontally, but better undermined by being contained and redirected against political enemies. Badiou, Negri and Žižek insist that the idea of communism needs to be thought anew, outside of the worn-out  forms of the party and the unions. Students in Croatia have demonstrated how it ought to be: bold, directly democratic and strategically open.

by Toni Prug
originally published in Radical Philosophy
References:
1.    Ćurković S. Tranzicija i solidarnost [Internet]. H-Alter. 2009 Oct 13 [cited 2010 May 3];Available from: http://www.h-alter.org/vijesti/ljudska-prava/tranzicija-i-solidarnost

2.    Free Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. The Occupation Cookbook [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2010 May 3];Available from: http://slobodnifilozofski.org/?p=1901

3.    Free Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. About the independent student initiative for the right to free education [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2010 May 3];Available from: http://slobodnifilozofski.org/?page_id=2

4.    Free Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. The Occupation Cookbook: CODE OF CONDUCT DURING THE STUDENT CONTROL OF THE FACULTY OF HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2010 May 3];Available from: http://slobodnifilozofski.org/?p=1915/#28

5.    Ivančić V. Invisible Terror [Internet]. 2009 Apr 27 [cited 2010 May 3];Available from: http://bit.ly/b0pUBW http://www.slobodnifilozofski.bloger.hr/post/ekskluzivno-za-sf-blog–novi-tekst-viktora-ivancica-s-prvenstvom-objave/1391712.aspx

6.    Riddell M. Alistair Darling: Tensions with No 10 are inevitable … healthy or unhealthy [Internet]. Telegraph.co.uk. 2009 Dec 12 [cited 2010 May 3];Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/labour/6793082/Alistair-Darling-Tensions-with-No-10-are-inevitable-…-healthy-or-unhealthy.html

7.    Treanor J. Cash machines were monitored every hour during banking crisis [Internet]. The Guardian. 2009 Oct 11 [cited 2010 May 3];Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/oct/11/banking-crisis-one-year-on

8.    COMMISSION OF THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITIES. Opinion on Croatia’s Application for Membership of the European Union [Internet].  Brussels: 2004. Available from: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:52004DC0257:EN:NOT

9.    Austrian Nationalbank. Recent Economic Developments in selected CESEE Countries [Internet].  Austrian Nationalbank; 2009 [cited 2010 May 3]. Available from: http://www.oenb.at/en/geldp_volksw/zentral_osteuropa/recent_economic_developments.jsp

10.    Maxian S, Demel W. CEE Banking Sector Report [Internet].  Vienna, Austria: RZB Group; 2006 [cited 2010 May 4]. Available from: http://www.rzb.at/eBusiness/services/resources/media/1023296711504-1024688546430_1025308745143-339289253098791970-1-NA-DE.pdf

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6 Responses to “Toni Prug: Student Control Over the Faculty in Croatia”

  1. [...] owned by the people, not the state, see Branko Horvat), the capitalist vultures turned …This Post Cancel [...]

  2. This is very good article, I am very interested in its topic and read them was a pleasure.

  3. [...] aktivnosti, kako piše i Toni Prug (”Fakulteti u Hrvatskoj pod kontrolom studenata”, prevedeno iz britanskog časopisa “Radical Philosophy”, na http://www.slobodnifilozofski.com), državno-kapitalistička mašinerija bez [...]

  4. [...] kun je ook artikelen vinden over de vijfweekse bezetting in Zagreb en hier een stuk gepubliceerd in Radical Philosophy over de [...]

  5. [...] happened during the Zagreb University occupations: five-week occupation an article in the journal Radical Philosophy. [...]

  6. [...] movement. In doing so, we will try to focus on the less known details and avoid going too much into already analysed events, like the structure of university occupations in the spring of 2009 (cf. The Occupation [...]

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