After the Revolution: Youth, Democracy, and the Politics of Disappointment in Serbia

On October 5, 2000 hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Belgrade, Yugoslavia. They stormed parliament and the state television headquarters. These mass actions, which ended a decade of authoritarian rule by Slobodan Milošević, famously included a bulldozer driven from central Serbia and followed by a column of industrial workers. It was the raised fist of Otpor, the student movement, however, that was the icon of the uprising. Students had long played a decisive role in the resistance to the Milošević regime, which had waged brutal wars in Croatia, Bosnia and then Kosovo, overseen the criminal privatization and ruination of the economy, as well as transformed Yugoslavia into an international pariah. As the title indicates, Greenberg situates her insightful and well-written ethnography in the aftermath of Milošević’s toppling. She examines the ways that student activists struggled to redefine themselves in the new, unstable, and ultimately disappointing political context that followed, a context that was especially bleak after the 2003 assassination of the democratically elected Prime Minister.

To be sure, students still drew on romanticized representations of themselves as heroic political actors, claims that echoed older socialist valorizations of youth as a social group with a privileged role in progressive change. As Greenberg makes clear, however, student activists had to negotiate a more fraught terrain in the early 2000s, and they had to act knowing they would inevitably fail to live up to hopes they engendered. In place of a Manichean struggle against a hated dictator, activists found themselves with more mundane and compromising tasks associated with establishing liberal democracy. In short, they had to navigate the inevitable disappointments that emerge from the central contradictions between people’s expectations for change and actual democratic practice. Greenberg moves the social life of disappointment center stage rather than explain away or paper over these disappointments, or treat disappointment as a byproduct of failure to live up to Western liberal ideals. She argues that disappointment is a complex political and affective state in its own right, one which is a necessary condition of participating in dominant forms of democratic politics.

Throughout the author is careful to position this student generation socially, politically, and historically, especially in relation to their parents’ generation. Students viewed the older generation as having exhibited naive faith in socialism, enabling the abuses of the socialist period, and alternately responding with passivity to the Milošević regime. Students refused to invest either in revolutionary change or in apathy. Instead, they developed what they understood to be a sober, pragmatic, political agency; one that accepts that imperfection is a necessary part of engagement. When understood in this way, scholars can see activists’ embrace of a number of practices generally associated with neoliberalism in a different light. Rather than simply being imposed on student activists by funders, for example, Greenberg describes why neoliberal practices were attractive to Serbian activists: they offered a path beyond a series of specific political impasses. For example, students avoided mass protests, emphasizing instead “quality” over quantity, in order to reclaim the democratic spirit of October 5, but excise ties to the radically nationalist strains of anti-Milošević resistance. Protest in this frame was attractive because it allowed students to perform the representative relationship (vis-à-vis those students who were not present) rather than embodying the democratic masses. The activists Greenberg studied also championed the Bologna Process—a set of reforms to ensure the comparability of university training across Europe—even though it was widely perceived critically elsewhere as the neoliberalization of higher education. Serbian students saw in Bologna a chance to establish standardized procedures to which faculty and students would be held accountable. They hoped Bologna would help to create a more ordered university and, significantly, one more resistant to the political capture of universities that Milošević had carried out so effectively. They embraced a so-called student freedom to make educational choices, even as this dovetailed with plans to make students bear more of the risks for their educational choices as entrepreneurial investors in their own futures. Following years of isolation and economic stagnation, students were desperate to create educational institutions which would enable them to become “recognizable European subjects,” that is, mobile, employable citizens. Similarly, to avoid the inevitable—and in Serbia, damning—accusation that students were acting politically, which is to say in corrupt and self-serving ways, activists took refuge in proceduralism and policy expertise. While elitist and antidemocratic in crucial ways, or, in a word, disappointing, both these approaches allowed students to craft themselves as apolitical and disinterested; they allowed activists to continue to be engaged when engagement was tainted, if not wholly discredited, in the eyes of the public.

By showing how neoliberal practices offered an appealing set of solutions to the social constraints in which activists found themselves, Greenberg’s book overcomes one of the most common shortcomings of critical studies of neoliberalism. She makes clear that neoliberalism is not only imposed from above, but embraced for reasons that, ironically, have little to do with, in fact may be at odds with, the centralization of political and economic power that they have so frequently facilitated. This nuanced attention to the local dynamics of neoliberal reform does not mean that After the Revolution is primarily of interest only to those seeking to understand the former Yugoslavia. First, this important book illuminates a much broader post-socialist condition, one not confined to those territories that experienced actually existing socialism: the disorienting loss of revolution as a way of organizing time, narrating history, and understanding agentive action. Second, focused on a territory in which neoliberal forms of governance were not yet the established common-sense, Greenberg is able to defamiliarize the ways that democratic standing, representativeness, expertise, procedure, and political disinterest are socially produced and deployed, therefore opening them to fresh analysis and theorization.

Maple Razsa, Colby College

Greenberg, Jessica. 2014. After the Revolution: Youth, Democracy, and the Politics of Disappointment in Serbia. Stanford University Press. Read more at Standford University Press

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