A Rarely Asked Question

by Boris Buden


The problem with so-called frequently asked questions is well known: They are stereotypes that generate even more stereotypes. The only way to tackle this problem is to deal with such a stereotype directly. So, let me start with one about Serbs: an anecdote I heard some ten years ago in the aftermath of the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia. Of course, I don’t know whether it is true or not, but for a stereotype this is of no importance, anyway. In a department store in New York a customer couple was walking around complaining loudly about the quality of the merchandise. A seller, visibly annoyed, finally reacted: “What’s wrong with you folks, are you Serbs?”

So here it is, a frequently asked question: What’s wrong with Serbs? What is it that makes them appear as annoying bad guys in the eyes of others? As always, common sense offers an answer: While after the collapse of Communism the so-called “normal nations” from the eastern side of the old Cold War divide promptly took the path to prosperity and democracy, Serbia has chosen to regress into a nineteenth-century nationalism, open conflicts, and even wars with almost all of its neighbors. Images of the Yugoslav catastrophe are still fresh in our minds: the bombardment of Dubrovnik, the ruins of Vukovar, Sarajevo under siege, starving creatures behind barbed wire evoking the horror of Nazi concentration camps, Srebrenica, Kosovo… Or those insane personalities, above all Slobodan Milošević, a monster of mythological dimensions – half Communist, half nationalist – and his wife Mira, the Lady Macbeth of the Balkans; or the poet, psychiatrist, war lord, strategist of ethnical cleansing and instigator of the worst war crimes in Europe after World War II, all in one person, later disguised as a new age freak; or that morbid general who ordered executions of thousands and is still at large… The reality seems even worse than the worst stereotype. So, is there anything we can do about it?

Yes, there is. We can obstruct the intention of common sense to satisfy us with frequently given answers. How? By posing rarely asked questions. This one, for instance: What if there is definitely something wrong with Serbs and we can do nothing about their totally devastated reputation, anyway? Serbia will never reappear as a respectable nation. In short, we should let them die as what they actually are – bad guys.

I already hear common sense protesting: A nation can never die! Really? Why are you so sure? But common sense insists: If the Germans could recover after the Holocaust, everybody can recover. Serbs, too, must deal sincerely with their shameful past, with all the Sarajevos and Srebrenicas, and punish those most responsible for the atrocities. After having done this, will they, too, be able to finally join the family of normal nations on the common path to a better, democratic, peaceful and prosperous future?

Let me insist on my point: You can probably squeeze fascism out of a society like dirty water from a sponge. But you can never extract a society from the spirit of fascism. I have in mind the following: In the epoch of industrial modernism, including all three of its major politico-ideological formations, Communism, fascism and democracy (from today’s point of view, there were only two: fascist and/or communist totalitarianism and democracy), a nation was understood primarily as a social phenomenon, or, more concretely, as a – nationally framed – society. Nation related to society as form to content. We were saying “nation” but thinking, in fact, of a particular society under this national name. The very idea of “nation” was at that time intrinsically tied to its social meaning. Consequently, nationalism, and fascism as its extreme form, were understood primarily in terms of a social disorder, or, more precisely, in terms of a particular political disease of society – a sort of cancer that, if not promptly and accurately treated, could bring society to collapse, or, in its most radical form, like in Nazism, to the point of an overall destruction and self-destruction.

Accordingly, anti-nationalism and antifascism saw their primal goal in saving or reanimating the healthy kernel of society. Even orthodox Communist ideology, faced with the fascist challenge, revised the most essential elements of its theory and political strategy. Concretely, it abandoned the principle of class struggle. They invented the strategy of the “people’s front” that unified all those willing to oppose fascists, regardless of their class affiliation. Those good antifascist guys claimed, under the name of the “people”, sovereignty over the whole of society. The other, bad, fascist guys were considered unable to represent society and were labeled “no people” and fought as such. So the antifascist struggle became the struggle of a society for its survival. Victory in this struggle was the victory of society over the forces of its (self-)destruction. Finally, a nation under the political label of “people” could have been reborn out of its social deepness. We shouldn’t forget that most countries ruled by Communists after World War II were officially labeled “people’s republics”.

On the western side of the former Cold War divide, where the challenges of nationalism (and the danger of its fascist distortion) have been met in a liberal democratic way, the good, normal guys are embodied in the concept of public reason, a faculty able to revive society after all sorts of catastrophes. A democratically transparent society is a society with a clear conscience. However, it also has its own bad guys – both those of yesterday and today – but is always able to publicly expose them as such and consequently marginalize, exclude, or, if needed, legally punish them. So, in a liberal democratic society the good guys always prevail in the end.

In the case of Serbia, the first, Communist, strategy had worked until the historical end of Communism. But it has never been successfully replaced by the second, liberal democratic one. One only remembers desperate attempts to invent good guys in the guise of an anti-nationalistic “Other Serbia” – a few dissidents, human rights activists and civil society initiatives – which have never had any significance in the political life of the Serbian nation. On the contrary, it was the real – that is, the politically powerful – anti-Miloševi opposition, which succeeded in toppling Miloševi and his regime. However, Serbian nationalism has always been an almost exclusive medium of its political legitimation

Moreover, one part of this anti-Communist opposition has been openly fascist. Why, then, has liberal democracy never defeated nationalism in Serbia? Why now, twenty years after the collapse of Communism, is nationalism still the prevailing force in this Balkan country? Why are fascist ideas and fascist political initiatives a normal part of today’s Serbian reality?

My answer is simple: Because there is no society in Serbia any more. The notion of a “Serbian nation” doesn’t imply any social content today. It was not only socialism that disappeared twenty years ago from Serbia’s political life. Society as we knew it in the epoch of industrial modernism has disappeared. What has remained is an identitarian flatness as the main horizon of Serbian political life. Now, bad guys are everywhere and nowhere, but always out of reach of the society they are systematically abolishing. As the vanguard of Serbian nationalism and fascism they have also successfully fulfilled their historical role, which was to bring the epoch of society to its end. What we call a “nation” under this historical condition is, in fact, the coffin in which society was buried. This is by no means only a Serbian phenomenon. Strictly speaking, a post-Communist society is a contradictio in adjecto. Post-Communism is essentially a post-social condition, a condition in which nationalism and fascism have become democratic normality. But please don’t panic. This is only a never given answer to a rarely asked question.


BORIS BUDEN  Cultural scientist and journalist; has written for publications in the fields of philosophy, cultural science, social criticism, and contemporary arts; collaborator at the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Politics in Vienna.