Monday, 28 November 2011

Ljubljana Dérive (and anti-capitalism)

Yours truly when last in LJ, over Christmas/New Year 2008-9, in a miserably overheating Stojadin. The engine nearly blew apart owing to a faulty 1-euro thin cardboard gasket.  This picture later appeared on flickr, having been posted by an incredulous Slovenian driver.
So, with all the galleries closed today, I've taken the opportunity to have a good stroll around Ljubljana in the frosty winter sunshine, and to re-acquaint myself with the city. It's been three years since I last was here (see above), and I have missed it in that time, as it really is quite a unique city, and amongst my favourite three anywhere.

Austro-Hungarian post office, Slovenska cesta
Every time I come back here, the place seems to have become slightly more globalised. Smaller shops on the main drags seem to have been priced out in the last couple of years, so the dubious charms of Vero Moda have now been replaced by international brand names. Not that this process hasn't attracted much local dissent; this city is amongst the most heavily graffitied of any I've been to, ranging from the usual anti-capitalist slogans, to truly ornate street art around the Metelkova "autonomous space", which seems to shrink slightly with every new visit. There still seems to be a robust and defiant community there; good to see, as, with the waning of Christiania in Copenhagen, Metelkova must now be one of the better known communal spaces in a European capital city. The authorities have been frustrated many times in the past in an attempt to clear out the residents, and appear to have given up that idea for now.

Top-hatted Octopus, Metelkova
Ljubljana had a remarkable twentieth century. A person born in 1900 would have been variously a royal Austro-Hungarian subject, a subject of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes; a comrade-citizen of Socialist Yugoslavia, a citizen of independent Slovenia; a very few centenerians would have recently ended their days as an EU citizen, in late 2004.  This flip chart of successive short-lived identities also ignores the savage, brutal Italian-German occupation of here in 1941-45. From early 1944 the whole city was cordoned off with barbed wire, so pitifully poor was the hold of the Axis occupiers on a resentful and deeply divided local population. An incredibly complex and hard to navigate micro-civil war was fought here between Slovene Communists, democrats, clerical fascists, and out-and-out Nazis, somewhat cut off from the main thrust of the partisan struggle in Croatia, Serbia and BiH.

More than a tinge of Venice here
Slovenia had a reputation as being the most loyal of the non-Austrian provinces to the house of Habsburg; it joined the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, only because there was little other viable alternative, in the wake of the First World War. At the other end of Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes, Slovenia was the first to unshackle itself from an increasingly moribund Yugoslav federation. The moderate and pluralistically-minded leadership of the League of Slovenian Communists, under Milan Kučan, found themselves increasingly at odds with the centralising, new ethnic nationalism of Slobodan Milošević as 1989 wore on. The Slovenian party formally withdrew from the League of Yugoslav Communists at a stormy and vehement extraordinary congress in late 1990; half a year later, on 25 June 1991, Ljubljana became the newest capital city in Central Europe, after the dismal failure of Milošević's half-hearted attempt to call the Slovenes to heel, by force.

Stari trg (Old Square) in the afternoon sun
In the subsequent twenty years, Ljubljana has undergone a thoroughgoing reconstruction and redevelopment.  Culture has been central to this. For a city of not much more than 250,000 people, there is a remarkably diverse and thriving official, and unofficial culture. This has been the case here since the late 1960s, and the time of the remarkable and oft-mentioned OHO group; "alternative" culture, as a means of critiquing rather than calling for the overthrow of the Socialist government, took several large steps forward in the mid 1980s, with an alternative scene producing the likes of Laibach, the IRWIN grouping and the Neue Slowensiche Kunst phenomenon. From the 1990s, Slovenia has maintained and developed a cultural profile in inverse proportion to its relatively small population and size.

The city today bears strong traces of all its stages of development in the last hundred years. The pearl- like city centre, set around Joze Plecnik's famous three bridges, the Roman Catholic cathedral, and the apartment blocks all bear strong traces of the Habsburg period. Around the River Ljubljanica, with small boutiques, coffee shops and pleasant restaurants, there is an unmistakably Venetian flavour. Around the rather empty Cankarjevo Dom, now a cultural and shopping centre, and office blocks, is the heavy concrete footprint of the Titoist years, given a mournful aspect by the neglected revolutionary monument, constructed in 1975.

Monument to the Revolution, Cankarjevo Dom. 1975
On the surface, Ljubljana still appears to be in robust economic health, with many of the fatal existential doubts plaguing other parts of the EU little evident here. In common with the neighbouring Croats, Slovenia goes to the polls on the 4th December, after Borut Pahor's soft-centrist government fell in a vote of confidence; moderate, technocratic, middle of the road candidates stare out from electoral posters of all different hues. Purely in terms of graffiti, however, there does appear to be an appetite for a different kind of politics here; calls for the death of capitalism, or a renewed collectivism are hardly unusual, but the daubing here does seem driven by much more than the raging hormones of an angry sixteen year old with an aerosol can.
The trouble is, what is that alternative? No one knows. The student and anti-captialist protests across the EU and USA in the last year have been spectacular, but unfocused, rudderless and seemingly lacking any kind of political nous, or viable forward strategy. They have made good copy for the 24 hour news networks, but saturation media coverage is of dubious merit now; the permanently-ravenous permanent-breaking-news focus quickly moves on when the protests stagnate, and the collective memory is now so short, addled by the 'net, that such protests tend to blend quickly into one faded cartoon wallpaper.  
It may well be fair to say that people are jaded, cynical and sick to the back teeth of a professional, media savvy political class that pursues power as a goal in itself, in a post-ideological age. That acknowledged, the same very old, re-heated Trot and Anarchist slogans, shouted through a megaphone, or written in Gill Sans Bold 48-point on the front page of a newspaper that nobody reads, aren't going to persuade anyone of the viability of a radical alternative. If the forms and articulations of adversarial twentieth century democracy are played out, so to are the wannabe-utopian alternatives.
Revolutions and ruptures reflect the character of the age that produces them. Middle class opinion-formers have seen in the current student protests, a strong echo of their own youth in the late 1960s. However, this generation of discontent is utterly atomised and disunited, held together only by a rather vague, impotent "down with this sort of thing" sentiment, a loose farrago of 101 discontents crashing into one another and cancelling one another out, according to the specific local circumstances of the protest. 
The spectacle of unity, the spectacle of discontent, can easily be accommodated in late capitalist society, without so much as a pin prick of damage being caused to its architecture. For every latter-day revolutionary who wants to seize control of the means of production, distribution and exchange, there is a protestor waving a placard because he happens to be worried about his ability to re-pay a mortgage or car loan, in an age of spiking job insecurity. In the internet age, people relate to circumstances around them on an ever-more individualised, consumerist basis, which is a challenge that collectivist and radical strategies have never convincingly confronted. 
How is it possible to act on a basis of collective solidarity, in order to achieve collectively agreed aims, when such widely differing viewpoints have to be accommodated, in order to merit the label "collective" in the first place? A further problem is the discrediting of the label "collective" in post-socialist societies such as Slovenia. Here, there are far fewer Yugo-nostalgics than may be found further south and east; the Yugoslav period is seen, at best, as an interesting historical experiment which failed utterly, the political imperatives of that era never to be re-visited. 
One of the few old Yugoslav-era buildings left, across the road from Metelkova
All of which post-Marxian nurdling leads us, thankfully, back to Metelkova. Such autonomously minded small communities- consisting of only a couple of hundred or so folk at most- may point a way ahead for those who want to effect meaningful change in how their lives and those of their friends- are lived.This must necessarily be done on a very small scale, and incrementally. Over time, communities such as Metelkova have shown that it is possible to live collectively, with little reference to mainstream society. The answer that no one has yet come up with, is how to translate that very small scale, local change into a much wider transformatory movement. Maybe that's why I'm a bit frustrated with the glacially slow progress of the myriad protests around the world this year. Utopianism, a sensitivity to obvious injustice, and a good heart, aren't enough to achieve anything any more. The vague, woolly "it's not fair" sentiment of the protests won't convince a hard bitten political public who worked that out for themselves, over two decades ago.
Never before has a revolutionary moment such as this one lacked, so painfully, a popular political expression and alternative strategy. In an atomised, deeply individualist political culture, maybe immediate local gains, and the gradual transformation of local conditions are the way to start, in an attempt to build, over time, a fundamentally different collective patchwork.

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