In the post 1989 world, intellectuals and activists are suffering from an ongoing case of surprise. No one, for example—East or West—expected the wars that came seething out of Yugoslavia. With each day’s newspaper, pundits rush to reverse themselves. (“NATO can never win this war.” “NATO has won this war.”)
Since 1989, there have been a number of these swift, vicious wars. They are many things: trials of new alliances; parades of new weapons; reconfigurations of Western ideas of self interest and values. Among the casualties are the conversations about possible futures that American leftists expected to have at a moment so dramatically named “the fall of communism.”
What, after all, was this going to mean? “A new world order” sounded Orwellian, and “an end to ideology” jejeune. The U.S. left’s formulations in response often seemed tired and inadequate. But it wasn’t basic left values that were worn out. After a twenty-five-year decline in the power of the American left, it was rather left confidence about strategy that had received another blow. And our shock at the carnage was so great that we stopped thinking about our deeper disorientation.
The International Herald Tribune reported in January 1997 that after the Dayton agreement, a string of U.S. Treasury officials visited President Slobodan Milosevic, urging him to open up Yugoslavia to foreign investments. An increasingly hostile Milosevic finally turned on his glossy Western visitors: “Foreign money is rabbits. . . . Once it gets in the country it runs all around and you can’t find out where it all ends up.” Quite. No doubt Milosevic’s fear of the increasing freedom of capital helped bring about the wars in Yugoslavia. If a post 1989 left doesn’t like his methods for seeking control or setting boundaries, we need to find others. Though in the United States left constructions of demand, need, desire, and entitlement have always been pastiche, the forms in which the left called for social justice were based on long strings of associations and assumptions built up over a century of varied struggles. Now left demands have lost many of their directional arrows. Who is to be asked for what? Where does the buck stop when “capital is rabbits”? All the groups I know are proceeding piecemeal. We have only the sketchiest maps for post 1989 political action.
I remember tasting ashes in my mouth when I discovered that my pre 1989 political words suddenly sounded different—naive, or unmoored, or merely rhetorical—to my own ears. A new context had changed everything. The language of the left had lost its stability after the break up of the great structuring belief systems of the cold war period.
Of course, in East and Central Europe, 1989 had a completely different feeling and meaning. The sense of an ending was submerged beneath the popular euphoria about beginnings. Even those with something to lose shared in an immensely hopeful curiosity about what might come next. In the Eastern search for new political maps the talk was about democracy, civil society, human rights, and how to join the West economically and socially.
But just as the frightening eruption of war in Yugoslavia transformed the range and tenor of political conversations in the West, so too, in the East, the romance with civil society was soon accompanied by more bitter questions arising from the wars: How will nationalism play in postcommunism? Who will be the next world policeman? When will the U.S. fight, and when will it not fight? Is Europe a fortress, and if so, who is inside?
The wars have brought East and West together in a wild surmise about the power blocs of the future. “Security” now trumps “democracy”—a shared change of emphasis. And there is that other commonality: though for historically divergent reasons, traditional left aspirations have become almost unspeakable. On both sides of the former cold war, whole dictionaries of left languages have dropped from daily use into the rare or archaic. For example, one British colleague who lectured about the disturbing loss of social services in the new democracies of East and Central Europe was vociferously attacked—not by the right, but by a Hungarian social democrat, who argued that these were social demands the fragile new states could never meet. Left talk was nothing but regression and self delusion; this man wanted realpolitik. Similarly, in private, Polish colleagues worry about the collapse of government supported social welfare, but many of them feel they cannot strike this note of complaint in public: “They’ll call us communists.” As one Polish activist put it, “The socialist words are tainted. We’re going to need new ones.”
The scene is New York on a typical day during the spring, after NATO began bombing Serbia. I receive two phone calls, both from activist friends, colleagues on the left. One asks that we rush to a certain street corner to protest the bombing; the other indicates a different street corner to support the humanitarian intervention to save the Albanian Kosovars from genocide. Each side speaks in a language that retreats to a pre 1989 predictability, describing a binary world—language that could have been used at any time in the last thirty years. Each proclaims underlying values I share.
Indeed, in both East and West, the current analytical impasse is daunting. We’re all trying to think on our feet. It’s a war of analogies. Is 1999 like 1936 (in which case we must rush to head off Hitler/Milosevic), or is it like 1968 (in which case the United States must get out of world power mongering and foreign intervention and mind its own business)?
I’ll propose my own analogy: 1945. There’s no literal similarity, of course, since 1945 inaugurated those very rigidities of world power structure that are now (possibly) breaking down. But the degree of change, and our lack of clarity about how to name it, is parallel. So, 1945: The war is over (for the time being). There’s a brief moment of celebration. Then the struggle to understand the new shape of local and world politics begins. The left faces a U.S. capitalism that is mobile, healthy, and flushed with triumph. Plenty of money is about to be spent on new weapons, a most lucrative trade. In response, a new generation begins the necessary process of critique and resistance to the terrible poverty that shadows all this plenty. (The last time, the new generation emerged only after twenty years, and because of the provocation of a new war.)
How will they do it this time around? I find I haven’t lost the habit of wishing: the impulse toward political commitment finds new, indigenous forms; people everywhere experiment and cobble together an activism from the available discourses. Saskia Sassen describes how the new capital has cleverly constructed pathways for itself that escape government observation and regulation and at the same time can’t be seen in daily life. In response, people try to make their own new political pathways. Though the idea of “Human Rights” is liable to cynical manipulation, its emphasis on individual responsibility adds something brilliant to traditional left thinking: individuals made the war in Yugoslavia, an idea to place alongside the left analysis that sees large structural causes underlying every important historical event. To continue wishing, is it too much to hope that the current tension between labor movements and identity politics will ease? In a worldwide economy, we have to say farewell to the hope of worker unity. Recognition of difference is the only gate to new organizing. But ecology might be one common ground: the demand that capital stop poisoning the village wells of all the world.
The social structures and the individual psychology of political participation are weak in the post 1989 world. Because in America there’s very little historical memory, patience is in order. Those seeking new political identities are forced to invent everything—and nothing’s harder.
Ann Snitow teaches at the New School University and co-edited, with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Feminist Memoir Project.