Interview, 2011: Democracy Finds its Continuity in Totalitarianism

Interview for BIFC HUB May 30, 2011

May 30, 2011 | Tjaša Pureber

Democracy Finds its Continuity in Totalitarianism: A Conversation with Jasna Koteska

I first met Jasna Koteska in 2009 at a conference in Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana. She stepped on the stage in what seemed to be a radical gesture: she refused to sit and lecture. Instead, she was standing in what at first seemed to be rather uncomfortable manner but which soon proved to be well-staged performance that, with her witty and lucid thoughts, instantly captured the entire audience. Among other things, she talked about her father, the famous Macedonian poet Jovan Koteski, who was, along with his family, persecuted by the secret services in the former Yugoslavia. Jasna Koteska has ended her family’s silence on the matter by putting her father’s fate into the sphere of political. And it was this topic that has gained Koteska international recognition as one of the most renowned contemporary Macedonian authors. 
She is closely linked to Slovenia, for she has been teaching 19th century Slovenian literature for nearly 15 years at Skopje’s state university. Other than literature, with which she made her PhD, she works in the sphere of theoretical psychoanalysis and gender studies and deals with topics such as intimacy, sanitation, trauma, ressentiment, identities, abjection and communism. She was born in 1970 in Skopje, Macedonia, and studied at the Central European University in Budapest and at the University of Skopje. She has written several books and articles. Her book Intimist (which was the Yugoslav secret police file’s code name for her father) has been translated into Slovene. It explores the 20th century as the world without intimacy.  

TP: Do you celebrate the first of May?

JK: I would be lying if I said that I celebrate it in any pre-defined, ritualistic way. In Macedonia, the 1st of May is traditionally celebrated with outdoor barbeques, turbo-folk and lots of alcohol. It is not a message, a voice sent against cruel working conditions, but a perverse festivity: you go and work your ass off in the field, or in the factory, and then, once a year, you get lost in a drunken leisure, celebrating precisely the time spent recovering from work, as a form of leisure for the sake of the (next) work period. In my view, Macedonians have a limited knowledge of workers’ rights, not to mention their poor tradition as protesters, and the 1st of May, apart from small number of activists, remains a fuzzy souvenir from the communist past.
Of course, the meaning of the Day of Labor is highly important, and not only within the 19th century struggle for the eight-hour workday. I agree with Bertrand Russell that a four-hour workday would suffice to keep everybody in comfort; but we should also constantly remind ourselves of Bob Black’s famous manifesto “Abolition of work” and its opening sentences: “No one should ever work. Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world.” When I was younger, I had his manifesto posted on my fridge, more as a joke. The older I grew, the more meaningful it seemed to me. To abolish forced work, to eliminate compulsory production – this might be the most central call of our generation.

TP: Can you relate this manifesto to the present situation in Macedonia?

JK: Black’s manifesto sounds absurd for where I come from. There are numerous Western movements: the “living with 2 dollars per day” movement, the Dave Bruno’s concept of living with 100 or less personal items per year, etc., which testifies that some people are tired of the industrial ideals of work and consumption. But these movements seem ridiculous for my country, in which one third of the population lives in poverty and is forced to accept whatever job is offered to them. Many of my fellow citizens indeed do live with 2 dollars per day; their dream does not exceed possessing 10 personal possessions per year, etc. Two decades after the fall of communism and the full shelves of capitalist supermarkets remain a dream to a third of my fellow citizens. That is a reminder why the 1st of May is as important today as ever.

TP: But it seems that, in the countries of former Yugoslavia, many people look at the struggle for workers’ rights with some sort of nostalgia, with no real hopes or courage to engage in it in the present situation.  

JK: I am not nostalgic in any concrete, local-historical way, I hated communism and would never advocate for its return. But also, we should be aware that when the socialist movement came here, it meant something only remotely analogous to its original idea.
When communism began, there were barely any traces of market economy in Macedonia, and literally no industry, which means there were hardly any workers to be exploited. According to the census from December 1945, there were 140 factories, 163 enterprises, 8,873 work posts and only 3,391 employees in Macedonia, the lowest in all of Europe. (Slovenia, by comparison, had 1,094 factories, 1,222 enterprises and 87,113 work posts). Since there was no industry, the question was how to get the money to build one, in order to fulfill the big communist dream of mechanization.

TP: They found the solution in the village.

JK: Yes, the only place where there was any “real” – and not just virtual – money. In 1939, 76.6% of the entire population of Yugoslavia worked in agriculture. However, at the outset of the Second World War, there were a total of six (6) tractors in Macedonia, six sewing machines and 20 threshing machines! That was the entire base for production. One third of the peasants literally worked by hand, they didn’t even have the most primitive working tools. All I want to say is that, when the Western workers’ rights movement is contextualized here, it shows that the exploitation was mainly being transferred onto the peasants. The peasants were not only exploited, but, additionally, were declared a public enemy to the communist ideology, and so were confronted with double stigmatization.
But as a general question, of course, the fight for workers’ dignity is far from being over. Marx, in London, saw the big factories gobbling people up, he saw how people become machines, saw the human as the prosthesis of the machine. Marx’s prognosis on the impoverishment of the workers to the extent that he announced it, never really happened, if we take into consideration today’s worker, who owns a car and has a microwave oven. However, Marx clearly explained that he understands the proletariat as the lowest class segment, what is today known as a subclass: the unemployed, the sick, the old, the castaways, the homeless. In 1970, the theory of the “leisure age” appeared, when, because of the automatization of production, there arose a belief that no one would have to work as much, people would remain idle throughout their days. But this did not happen, and statistics says that the workers today work more than they worked, for example, in the 1980s.
Although Marx’s definition of the end of capitalism proved to be incorrect, what has remained true is his detailed analysis of the Capital that today transforms in all possible ways (decrease of fees, the transfer of large corporations to Third World countries because of the cheap labour available, etc.), and Marx has remained a disturbing reference without which the 21st century cannot be viewed.

TP: On your blog, there is an interesting essay you wrote about the latest pressure and court persecution against critical members of Macedonian civil society. It seems those processes are not meant so much against any concrete person as they are to frighten everyone else who dares to challenge the existing norms, which are determined by the elite class of Macedonian society.

JK: Yes, this is an ongoing phenomenon. Unfortunately, it is not a new trend, and possibly not only linked to small countries without the critical mass for genuine societal reform, as is the case with Macedonia. In an important essay by Michel de Montaigne on the “Art of Conference”, already in the 16th century, the pair “public dialogue/court” is mentioned in the very first sentence. Montaigne says: we do not correct the man we hang; we correct others through him. This combination of “dialogue/court” was commonplace during communism as well. But capitalism is not that much better. Look at the astonishing data on inhuman torture in the Guantanamo files released a few days ago by Wikileaks. They show the ugly face of capitalist illegal prisons, their own Gulags. It seems that democracy, of which we are all proud nowadays, oddly enough only finds its continuity in totalitarianism.
The question regarding Macedonian elites is mainly confined to the political elites (and their controlled media, judicial and financial satellites). With the 2008 budget adjustments, the intelligence and counter-intelligence administration of Macedonia was allocated much more funds in comparison to previous years. After years of careful investigation of the secret services, today we know that their darkest secret was that they were never really aimed at foreign policy intelligence.

TP: You often say that their main task was to work against the inner enemy, as it was in the case with your father.

JK: Yes, their main task remained to be the work of discovering and discrediting internal dissidents, as in a famous communist phrase: “Who is not with us, is our enemy.”
But I would also advocate looking into this question from the other way around, and what it means for the so-called “neutral citizens”. We know that when the book Hitler’s Willing Executioners from 1996 by Daniel Goldhagen appeared, it caused a lot of controversies because the author claimed that the number of killed Jews was known to the majority of Germans, and that the refusal to participate in the genocide was punished neither by death nor by any mayor injustice. Those who refused to collaborate with the state authorities didn’t suffer any personal harm. Moral choices are always possible, especially for the intellectuals. The problem is that the intellectuals are most frequently the state’s servants and are pecuniarily dependent on it. Darius Rejali, the author of the book Torture and Democracy, says: “Torture is not useful for collecting information. People think torture worked for the Gestapo, for example. It didn't. What made the Gestapo so scarily efficient was its dependence on public cooperation. Informers betrayed the resistance repeatedly in Europe, and everyone knew this, but it was more convenient to say the Gestapo got the truth by beating it out of us.” Regardless of the illusion about the ideological style, which may vary from liberal to cruel, the critical voices are always crucial in keeping the society healthy. Silence kills people.

TP: You and your family were faced with a traumatic experience because your father was the victim of repression by the secret services in the former Yugoslavia. It seems you take the steps of many relatives of regime victims, especially those in Latin America, who fight for the recognition of being, for stopping being invisible, by publicly talking about the experience. Have you been able to come to some kind of conclusion by putting the personal experience of your family into the sphere of political? 

JK: When I started studying my family’s past, I was not led by the need to understand great history, I didn’t want to dismantle the logic of the Yugoslav communism. I wanted to come to peace with my family’s past. I felt some kind of personal historical loss, some unrecognizable sadness, as in people who live with the burden of a sadness that cannot be publicly grieved.
My basic premise was that if the post-communist states want healthy nations, they have to psychoanalyze themselves extensively, in order to know what happened to them and where they are now. So I invited the children of the former political prisoners to open the communist files they kept at home, saying: I know you keep away from the drawers, because it hurts you, but if you open them, once, maybe it will start hurting less.

TP: What would you say your basic “coordinates” were before the beginning of this process?

JK: My question was: what kind of reconciliation is still possible for the people of my generation (born around the 1970s), for our intergeneration, for us who were the children of that system and the parents of this one? If the requirement of confronting the past is systematically necessary, proper in the sense of an evolving civilisation and historically important, whence did we pass the threshold to stop afflicting pain? In short: what would be the best approach for making peace with our ideological past?
In almost all the former communist countries, there was a legitimate question of the next generation: should I perform artificial respiration procedures on my parents, should I keep my parents’ family universe from slipping into the unconsciousness of history, displaying communist paraphernalia and pretending communism hasn’t left anywhere, or will I question their world? You remember Wolfgang Becker’s film Good Bye Lenin, where the leading hero’s mother wakes up from a coma and the doctors warn her son that it will be shocking for her to find out that while she was in a coma East Germany ceased to exist. So, the son starts to recreate the DDR as it used to exist in his mother’s apartment. This was an excellent lesson, that changes in the real political universe always happen as a nightmare, while people are in coma, and the right diagnosis is that the historical changes fall on their children. Benjamin has formulated that question: “We must wake up from the world of our parents. But what can be demanded of a new generation, if its parents never dreamt at all?”
But I admit, I was not well aware of what I was getting into. As you rightfully say, when you put personal memories into the sphere of public, there is a big danger of their being instrumentalized by the political elites, especially in small countries like Macedonia. As much energy as I have spent writing my book about my communist experience, I have spent the same amount of energy defending it from the rightist wings of my society.

TP: Macedonia was, I think, the only of the ex-Yugoslavia countries to accept the lustration law. Too late, you said. You also say that the law should only deal with the crimes by the previous regime. But it seems to me that the state control has merely taken new turns in multi-party democracy, but is no less violent toward personal freedom than the socialist regime was. Perhaps only the mechanisms have changed.

JK: True. It is too late for lustration. The successful lustrations in the Eastern European bloc were already done in the early nineties of the last century. But it is not too late for the confrontation with the past. Only, it should have historical value, and not political.

TP: This is why you want Yugoslav archives to be open for public?

JK: For more than half a decade now, I have been publicly speaking about the need for de-classifying the archives of communist Macedonia and opening them immediately, on the principle “all for all”, without mediation of political structures and the media – essentially the same process that Wikileaks has done, but to an unparalleled degree – not only for the past, but also for the current archives of the secret services and of diplomacy. That is why, to me, Wikileaks is the hero of our time.
In 2008, the Macedonian Parliament voted for the so-called “Lustration Law”, which was planned to cover the period from 1944 to 1990. According to this Law, the accuracy of any statement that a present or a future official had not collaborated with the secret services would be vetted by a Committee selected by the Parliament. The problem with this solution is that it again includes an authority of mediation (this time it is the Committee, which mediates between the past and the people), which means that even with this Law, the archives will not actually be free. 
And, as you rightfully say, the bigger problem with it is its political instrumentalization. In 2009, the Law on Lustration was amended to state, inter alia, that the lustration has to cover the period from 1945 to 2008! Luckily, the Constitutional Court annulled the respective stipulation about the duration of the lustration and ruled that it should stop in 1991, when Macedonia gained its independence.
But you are right about the present state of affairs, as well. In Macedonia, at the moment, there is an ongoing debate about controversial government-proposed amendments to the Law on Electronic Communications that is still in the process of being passed by the Parliament, which allows for the invasion of citizens’ privacy on a massive scale, thus creating a legal basis for the arbitrary and unlimited use of electronic communications. It entails surveillance of citizens without a court warrant, therefore without the possibility for any external control according to the principles of transparency. It is even at odds with the provisions of the constitution and, even more, similar amendments have already once been dropped as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. In other words, maybe Evgeny Morozov’s dark diagnosis of the Internet as a new tool for totalitarian control is true. We should be aware of these dangers.

TP: One of the first myths every nation has to create is the one about its history. When Slovenia was entering the EU, we witnessed a significant turn towards an imagined ancient Slovene identity, as if in fear that we would lose something we never had. This process often, of course, leads to nationalism and exclusion. It seems to me that Macedonia is going through a similar process, since we can see many politicians trying to create a link to the ancient Greek origins of Macedonia. But if you can understand the politicians and their populist lies, how can we explain scientists being as uncritical as they can possibly be on this matter, even contributing to it with the misrepresentation of the historical facts?
JK: I will answer with the best answer I have ever yet heard, given by the Macedonian professor Denko Maleski when he was interviewed for the Greek television on the issue of the name dispute: “In the Balkans, to be recognized as a nation, you need to have a history of 2,000 to 3,000 years old. Since you (the Greeks) made us invent a history…we did invent it! The pressure we received from the Greek political world has had as a result that we have been forced into the arms of the extremist nationalists, who today claim that we are direct descendents of Alexander the Great.”
Of course, the ancient roots of today’s Macedonia is a nebulous myth, and also, the attitude of today’s Macedonia should not be based on this premise: you don’t recognize us, now we will invent our history, and you will have to recognize it. Because, of course, it is the responsibility of the Macedonian citizens to remain calm in this name dispute, and to insist that an identity is something you have and do not need to justify, be it national, social, political, gender, sexual or whatever else. But Macedonians do not have either the power or the knowledge needed to stay calm and to stop falling into the irrational. However, we have to be aware that the big part of the reason why many scientists and classicists in these desperate times are remaining silent against the irrational and are not making a clear distinction between today’s Macedonia and the ancient one is because the state needs our lie about antiquity to justify our failures, our low-quality products and our provincial thoughts. If you claim you are the oldest around, at least you can claim that once you were great and, if not now, you were great in the past. Whatever the point of view, this is a sad story, both a political one (of ours and of our neighbors) and a national one.

TP: Lately, we are witnessing a wave of Yugo-nostalgia throughout all of the post-Yugoslav countries. People are creating myths without any serious relations to the real historical experiences. How do you explain such phenomena? Is this a symptom of the helplessness of people who instinctively feel something is wrong in capitalism but feel there is no future alternative and so turn to an imagined past one?

JK: Nostalgia is a strange cookie. The entrepreneurs who sell paraphernalia serving the socialist nostalgia today (posters, remakes, the entire image) are capitalist cows there to milk cash. It is logical today to support the socialist nostalgia only if you are a capitalist. Which paradoxically means that if you write against communism, you are still nostalgic!
On one hand, I think that the first gesture of Macedonia’s real awakening from the communist dream, paradoxically, was when all the Yugo-nostalgic iconography first started appearing – for example, establishments such as bars and restaurants with names like “Broz Caffe” and “At the Marshal”, or postcards with Titoist themes, or even newly emerging political parties, and so on – all of which provided dizzying confirmation that we have lived through a change in the political world. There is a new political party, “Tito's United Left Forces”, that appeared in Macedonia in 2007 and which is proof that Tito’s forces are part of a dead, past time. Small as they are, they even managed to squeeze one councilor onto the Skopje city council. Now we want to check Tito’s decisions, to see if they are still functional and to see what was good in that system. In other words, the clear distance from the communist tradition can happen only when people begin to see communism as a period “other” than their own.
On the other hand, capitalism today has organized the entire recognizable civilization, it has monopolized reality and it is a cruel system. Furthermore, the transition is terribly problematic; it shows the horrible pit of inhumanity. But the trick is that it was the same in the years of communism. Verdery gives a genius insight into the communist subordination before the capitalist definition of civilization. She says that the irony was that indebted regimes from the communist countries refused the definition imposed from without, and had they united to default simultaneously on their Western loans (which, in 1981, stood at over $90 billion), they might well have brought down the world financial system and realized Khrushchev’s threatening prophesy: “We will bury you! Your grandchildren will be Communists!”
This did not happen, and instead, it showed how crucial the capitalistic monopoly is for the definition of social reality. And that horrible stability of the cruel Capital is another reason for the nostalgia.

TP: It seems there are other reasons, too, however.

JK: True. In 2007, on a panel about communist nostalgia in Budapest, a Hungarian Jew told me: “My mother is 93 years old and she still talks about how good her youth was. In 1942, she was 28 years old. When I asked her how it is possible to be nostalgic about the period of the Third Reich, and she was a Jew, my mother replied: it is better to be 28-year-old girl, even in Nazi Hungary, than 93-year-old grandmother in today’s Hungary.” This is probably one of the most correct insights into nostalgia: when I long for the past, I long for the youth.
But maybe most important for the Yugoslav nostalgia is the fact that simply the territory was bigger. Though to some that may seem irrelevant, I argue it is not. Now, we are all stuck in our small nations, lacking the critical mass and we feel claustrophobic.

TP: Is the art world in Macedonia capable of producing any sort of meaningful critique of the current situation or is it capitalizing on the radical ideas and gestures by fetishizing and therefore neutralizing it? Is the financing of artists by the state a way to neutralize them?

JK: At the moment, the biggest Gaius Maecenas here is the Government of the Republic of Macedonia, which is spending enormous amounts of budget money to erect monuments to Alexander the Great and other more recent historical figures mainly in or around the city’s main square.

TP: This is changing Skopje as we know it.

JK: Most of this novel building spree is a result of a concentrated, single governmental project entitled “Skopje 2014”, which consists of all sorts of things: from baroque-like buildings to antique memorials. Most of us just throw scared glances at them, since all the opposition movements against the “Skopje 2014” project proved incapable of stopping the Government’s aggressiveness to reshape the landscape and, with it, its identity and our memory.
We are being intensely exposed to what is here referred to as “the process of Antiquisation”, which, of course, is falsified, potentially corruptive and highly controversial and, on top of it all, it also further segregates the ethnic groups living in my country, since most of the monuments only serve the purpose of building up the dominant Macedonian group identity, while Albanians, Turks and other ethnic groups are shunned.
There are many art movements that are opposing the present craze of the Government, and such movements utilize the only resistance they can presently muster – that would be: art, protest songs, literature and performances – I can single out the informal chorus called “Singing Skopians”, a chorus that sings a cappella at various locations in Skopje as an act of resistance via art.

 (c) photo by Ivan Todorovski


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