Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Refuge and its Scoundrels.

When Dr Johnson famously remarked that patriotism is the 'refuge of the scoundrel' he was actually referring to the Patriotic Party. Johnson was a Tory and wouldn't have written-off the love of one's country, and to some extent, he was right to do so. For patriotism can come in handy, in the war against Fascism it was the Churchillian vision of a determined island nation that held the people mesmerised. It's also worth noting that the great anti-colonial struggles of the last century involved revolutionary nationalism, especially in Vietnam and Cuba. The calls for Irish independence and reunification came primarily from nationalists. Of course, there is the darker side of nationalism, the jingoist harbinger of irredentism and nativism. And it's worth noting that the dark spirit of nationalism is much more common than the progressive and revolutionary possibilities of nationalism. Today we can see the reactionnaire appeals of nationalism against the European Union, while there are active pushes towards independence in Catalonia and Scotland where greater moves to regional autonomy have hardly failed.

It makes sense that the ultra-nationalist defenders of secession are crawling out of the woodwork in Europe at this time. Though this isn't simply the case where independence is concerned. If the referendum had secured Catalan independence recently it seems likely that the new nation would've been quickly subjected to a series of austerity measures. Because once a country of that size has broken-off it would need a new orbit and the European Union offers the strongest alternative. There are progressive arguments in favour of Catalan and Scottish independence. Yet it seems highly unlikely that a fledgling Celtic republic would escape the clutches of neoliberal globalisation either. There's some truth in Portillo's words that the country might easily be transformed into a land of low taxes and a shrunken state sector. In other words, Scotland could easily become a breeding ground for an even more merciless variation on the free-market ideal. At this point we need more unity, not less. This was most potently demonstrated by the demise of Yugoslavia - one of the great tragedies of the last century.

Yugoslavia was a federal socialist system of devolved republics and autonomous regions. It was free of Soviet domination and maintained a multi-ethnic society where Christianity and Islam were practiced side-by-side. All of it was held together under Marshall Tito who inculcated notions of 'brotherhood and unity' into the society as he fought to stamp out the remnants of nationalism in the masses. The state was maintained by a market socialist economy, which featured decentralised cooperatives and worker self-management as well as  a state planning apparatus. It combined the state as a primary mechanism for the organisation of the society and economy, while markets and cooperatives offered secondary mechanisms. The people enjoyed a guaranteed right to a job with a month's paid vacation, as well as free universal health-care and education as part of a comprehensive range of state services. There was never a Soviet-style collectivisation of Yugoslav society, for that may have torn apart the entire project of a country for Southern Slavs.

For a time Yugoslavia prospered with an average rate of growth at 6% and remained a leading model of independent development. The literacy rate reached 90% and life expectancy rose to 72 years. To expand the productive base and increase consumer goods the Yugoslav government borrowed from Western governments throughout the 1960s and 70s. Given that Yugoslavia had achieved development along independent lines (from Russia and not just the US) its federalism came under attack in the 1980s. The dismemberment of Yugoslavia became a concerted US policy as the National Endowment for Democracy began to focus on Yugoslavia as to hasten its breakdown and implement a series of neoliberal reforms. The IMF then began to force an austerity programme on Belgrade as a condition for payments on the country's debt. The austerity measures did not just mean a reduced public expenditure, but huge job losses and wage-cuts for the working. Eventually it would amount to the abolition of workers' self-management in the Balkans.

In spite of the decline of economic conditions inside the country Yugoslavia remained the only socialist republic after the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989. The people didn't rise up to overthrow the Communist government despite widespread discontent and rising nationalist sentiment. By now the dream of a Yugoslavia free of the old ethnic strife was dead in the water, with the rise of nationalist demagogue Slobodan Milošević. The Serbian nationalists wanted to hollow out Yugoslavia to establish a Greater Serbia. But the other nationalist movements wanted to break-off from Yugoslavia completely. To hasten the burst of secessionism the US began to yank the chain. In 1990 the Bush administration saw to it that Congress cut-off aid to all Yugoslav republics unless they declared independence within six months. The US demanded elections in all republics and went on to stipulate that every election must meet standards set by the US State Department. Later Italy would try to bribe Montenegro with aid to leave Yugoslavia and join them in the new Europe.

Within two years the US delivered another blow to Yugoslavia in the form of international sanctions to put a halt to all trade to and from the country. The economy quickly dived further into the abyss, unemployment spiralled to 70% while the health-care system collapsed and inflation exploded. Michael Parenti sees this as part of an agenda to turn the Balkans into a Third World developing region and to reverse the achievements of the Communist era. It would be a fractured region of republics incapable of independent development. The economy would be shattered, its natural resources stripped open to exploitation by multinational corporations. The people of Yugoslavia would provide a skilled workforce vulnerable to suppressed wages, as well as a reserve army of labour to be deployed to sink the wages of workers in Western Europe. The designs of neoliberalism to break-up Yugoslavia - only for its people to be rinsed by the forces of globalisation - converged with the aims of nationalists.

No comments: