The view from Union Street: from Yugoslavia to the European Union

Aleš Debeljak

Nomen est omen. How could I then fail to detect a suggestive and troubled connotation of the name of my street? Zvezna ulica orUnion Street, is a generous place for my family of five. It’s a dead-end street, though. Perhaps that’s the reason it can afford to be safe for kids at play and amicable for neighbors to trade gossip over the low garden fences. The street runs from the city’s main cemetery and to the railway tracks for rumbling Trieste-Vienna trains. Its end is in a traditionally working-class neighborhood of one-family houses in Ljubljana.

The name of my home street does not simply denote a generic union, a bond that ties together “more than one” entity. Its primary meaning continues to evoke Yugoslavia, the political union of Southern Slavs (except Bulgarians), the union that emerged out of the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918, and collapsed in the flames of the disintegrating Yugoslav federation in 1991. Recall: Yugoslavia was a political community that was explicitly established as a trans-national union of states/republics. For the last two decades, Slovenians have lived in an independent state, one that six years ago willingly joined another super-national Union.

The European Union, too, is a political community explicitly established as a trans-national union of states. Indeed, parallels between Yugoslavia and European Union may be easily drawn. Is this a somewhat distasteful comparison? Well, let’s see. Let’s bracket the political nature of the Titoist regime, and compare Yugoslav and European unions from the viewpoint of cultures. Both unions feature various Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodoxy, Islam); diverse nations and minority ethnic communities or “nationalities”; different languages; different scripts; a legacy from ancient Rome and medieval Byzantine Empire; the logical mind of Western Christianity and the mystic theology of Orthodox Christianity; the Renaissance, Humanism and Enlightenment. These parallels are also evident in regard to the Muslim communities: Muslims in Yugoslavia lived contiguously and in historical continuity in all of its republics, not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The inglorious exception in this regard was Slovenia, with its dubious reputation of being the most religiously and ethically uniform Yugoslav republic.

Unity in diversity?

Both political unions are characterized by democratic deficits. Granted, the member states of European Union operate in capitalism while Yugoslav republics operated in socialism. Yes, the “personality cult” that helped define socialist Yugoslavia is unknown in the European Union. Though, on the other hand: remind me, please, who is the current president of the European Commission or Council? And: capitalism is about the exploitation of man by man. In socialism, the reverse was true. That was an old joke from the time of the Cold war.

Today, “unity in diversity” in the European Union is no less an elusive concept than “brotherhood and unity” was in the former Yugoslavia. Both ideologies represent a screen onto which nations and individuals project their our own desires and expectations.Yugoslavism bit the dust. Europeanism continues to hold out its promise: it contains a fragile hope that its far-reaching, inclusive, utopian agenda might appeal to the majority of the citizens and peoples of Europe.

So far, alas, precious few efforts have been made to facilitate the construction of such a common narrative. Among the numerous national, ethnic, and cultural traditions on the continent, Europeanism does not figure very high on anyone’s menu of identities. Moreover, it would not be too excessive to claim that the systemic and institutional integration of the European continent increasingly diverges from what should be its complementary process – cultural integration.

The latter is as relevant an issue as the current financial crisis, (though the possible collapse of the euro is a more imminent danger) Still, with understandable regret I must state the obvious: the European Union has not yet succeeded in building a satisfactory series of images, values, and ideals that would transcend our immediate local existence with all its difficulties and joys. Europeanism – as a constellation of aspirations, images, attitudes, convictions, and concepts that could serve as a source of individual inspiration and grant meaning to collective behavior – such Europeanism has not yet appeared on the horizon.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that it needs to be jointly contemplated and envisioned; otherwise, we all will find ourselves, rich West Europeans no less than poor East Europeans, in an undesirable situation. We will end up sharing institutions and agencies designed to facilitate free-flowing financial and labor transactions, but our respective cultural spheres will remain condemned to an existence of reciprocal tolerance at best, that is to say, mutually encouraged passivity.

The twin brother of such tolerance is a lack of active interest in each other’s immediate lived experience. Without a broad social consensus on the legitimate and, thus, publicly recognized presence of a commonly shared narrative in which Europeans can recognize themselves precisely as Europeans – and not exclusively as members of ethnic or national communities – any attempt to construct such a narrative has to resort to abstract postulates.

Trans-national identifications presuppose the need to recognize multiple loyalties. The forging of a new European identity as a complex, hybrid, and invented tradition calls for the recognition of the ineluctably multiple identities from which Europeanism might be fashioned. There is, of course, an element of wishful thinking here: multilayered identities should allow for the simultaneous celebration of local, national, and continental aspects of one’s self. Our basic allegiance need not be exclusivist if it is realized in a democratic form. It should not be impossible to be at the same time, for example, culturally Catalan (ethnicity), politically Spanish (citizenship), and mentally European (mental frame).       

Alas, the current negotiation on the shape and character of “Europeanism” is to a large degree guided by a profound distrust of particular ethnic and national identifications. Such distrust may be understandable in regard to the horrific massacres committed in the 20th century in the name of “the Nation”, but it is epistemologically unacceptable in a globalizing world in which “Europeanism” is itself but a particular collective identity.

If one willfully avoids acknowledging the relevance of the cultural habits and values of the various nationalities of Europe, one’s “Europeanism” will end up looking hollow, simulated, and insubstantial. Neither the authority of the European Commission nor the civic and ethnically blind character of Europe’s trans-national bodies possesses the ability to inspire citizens; these institutions are too hollow for social mobilization, and too abstract to spark spontaneous affection.

The elusive face of Europe

Back on my street, the guys outside the newspaper kiosk-and-cafe sip steaming brown liquid from paper cups. I’m a regular, too. On my bicycle route to the office, I stop for a jolt of caffeine and a morsel of gossip. I know these guys: a postman, a hairdresser, a motorbike mechanic, and a fellow who is said to work for the “Sun Management”, a local expression for perennially unemployed. We’re all roughly the same age, take or add a decade. In other words, all of us were born and socialized in Yugoslavia; all have seen the emergence of independent Slovenia and now live in Euroslovenia.  

A street in Ljubljana.jpgOn one foggy, sickly warm December Monday, I stopped there again. This time, several more people crowded around the tiny table on a tall stand. Some paper pieces went from hand to hand, making uneven rounds. It turned out to be an exercise in comic nostalgia: the “manager” brought along a handful of tolars. Beautifully designed, the tolar, a currency of independent Slovenia, was issued to replace the yet older Yugoslav dinar, a currency of the defunct Southern Slavic union. The tolar’s gorgeously tasteful display of iconic Slovenian personalities helped turn the banknotes into a veritable gallery of national cultural history. As a currency, it didn’t last long. It did, however, inspire affection, as the faces of these men and women (well, one woman) continue to animate the popular discourse as a reminder of a narrative Slovenians tell about themselves.   

Little affection is prompted by euros (with which I settled the tab at the kiosk). The design of euros had to please many constituencies and is of course a result of a compromise. Is the euro banknote a mirror of Europe and Europeanism? Consider: what visually distinguishes the €5 bill is an image of a vaguely ancient viaduct that could have been erected anywhere in the former Roman Empire. The €10 bill shows what looks like a Romanesque portal while the €200 bill bears an opaque glass door and a kind of iron bridge. The euro is unlike various national currencies, in that it is too timid to show a face and too reticent to suggest a biography, to give pride of place to a story. Not a single human being appears on these banknotes. Incapable of inspiring any meaningful identification and failing to deliver on the imperative de te fabula narratur, these banknotes are abstractions.

In vain one searches for portraits of such familiar figures as Erasmus, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mickiewcz, Velasquez, Newton, Goethe, Andrić. The columns and arches on these notes instead suggest ruined empires, transformed into a longing for connection and community. They resignedly echo something lost in the sands of the irrecoverable past with no foundation and no recognizable landscape. In other words: the iconography of euro banknotes represents a no-man’s land, bereft of history and memory.

Must we sadly infer that contemporary Europe is a land with no founding events, heroes, or battle for independence? Is it soon to be without its currency too? I'm afraid so. I hasten to add, though, that I have no illusions about the “natural,” “everlasting,” or “stable” nature of collective narratives about events, heroes, or battles. These are of course always the provisional outcome of ongoing public negotiations over the choice of building blocks for the construction of collective imaginings.

The Handshake of Solidarity vs. the Hidden Handshake of the Market

In this regard, Europe’s weakness lies in its inability to offer a coherent collective narrative, an integrative template for common dreams. In its absence, many offshoots of political populism flourish. Fearmongers are adept at using metaphors of besiegement  such as “full boat”, “fortress Europe”, “barricaded society”, etc. These conservative metaphors have one goal in particular: to hide the pursuit of profit behind the calls for purity, that is, they mask economic interests with ethnic slogans. Appeals to an exclusivist concern for one’s own ethnic community seek to cover up the effects of globalization on the distribution of wealth and contribute to the erosion of important European traditions, such as the tradition of social democracy and the welfare state.

This tradition is rooted in the culture of trust and solidarity. As with many other underlying social concepts, however, Western and Eastern Europe differ in their concept of the basic social bond. In the modern Western world, the understanding of solidarity is pragmatic while in the eastern and southern part of the continent, the understanding of solidarity has been a moral one. Typical of the former is a concerted effort to combine the forces of all involved in order to attain a common goal that in turn reflects the common values and interests of the participants. In the eastern and southern part of the continent, the general belief is that solidarity is rooted in the imperative of unselfish assistance the stronger offers to the weaker, even if the only reward is a feeling of moral satisfaction.

There is no doubt that institutionalized solidarity played a key role in contributing to the modernization of Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal following their entry into the common European structures. Solidarity, alas, has since been forced to yield to the demands for greater individual freedom and economic profits that have grown apace with global capitalism. In western Europe the rebellion of the middle class against the continuation of guarantees for the social safety nets has been politically channeled into restrictions on the national budgets. The result? Solidarity, once the central pillar of social order, is now seen as a luxury which individual nations can, but are not obliged to, afford. It is no longer a crucial value. Instead, it has been pushed off to the sidelines.

Since the political elites cannot deal critically with trans-national global corporations, on which their nationally grounded survival increasingly depends, the simplest way to divert the public’s attention is to make a scapegoat of foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. An enlightened segment of the public still recognizes these outbursts of “fascism with a smile” as aberrant and unacceptable behavior.

Expressions of chauvinistic populism against and scapegoating of the “other” cannot be simply reduced to deviations from the norm. They are, alas, a constituent part of processes of long duration that in the course of European integration after World War II, focus on the economic freedom and the unfettered market. The latter in turn ushered in the corporate homogenization of everyday life. The hidden handshake of political solidarity once guaranteed by the welfare state and its social safety nets has gone by the wayside.

Those who reject the necessity of solidarity's handshake and prefer to swear by the hidden hand of the market, however, remain blind to what shape this hand would assume should it become visible: a fist with a pointed middle finger!

Aleš Debeljak, Professor of Cultural Studies and Director of the Center for Cultural and Religious Studies at the University of Ljubljana.