“Bringing class back in: An introduction”

Below are the introductory pages of the new volume Social inequalities and discontent in Yugoslav socialism.

“Bringing class back in: An introduction” (Rory Archer, Igor Duda and Paul Stubbs)

In January 1986, Yugoslav women’s magazine Bazar published a human interest story about a single-parent family’s inability to pay its electricity bill. The article was part of an initiative from the Alliance of Trade Unions to induce the electricity provider to provide subsidised electricity to the poorest Belgraders. It told the story of Zora, a 37-year-old widow and mother of four daughters living on Ruzveltova Street in Belgrade. Because she was unable to work outside of the home due to chronic illness, her precarious situation was described as being representative of over 2,000 Belgrade residents who had had their electricity supply cut off due to a frequent failure to pay their bills. Zora was widowed when her husband, a factory worker in Valjevo, was killed in a traffic accident. Following his death the factory did not assist his widow, and the pension that his children received (15,000 dinars) was not sufficient to live on (the minimum advance payment for electricity would amount to 11,350 dinars). As she did not yet fulfil the minimum criteria to receive a pension, Zora earned money by selling needlework informally. This did not cover basic living costs, however, and during the winter of 1984–1985 the electricity was cut off. Her eldest daughter Verica was an excellent student, among the top of her class. Although she wished to continue her education by attending university, Zora feared that this would remain an ‘unachievable dream’. In the presentation of the story for Bazar, Zora pleaded that her electricity bill be reduced. She argued that her four daughters would one day be diligent workers contributing to their society. Therefore, society should help her ensure that she could feed, educate and raise her daughters as honest persons.


Bazar (broj 458, 17.01.1986)

In the lively Yugoslav press, stories about so-called ‘social cases’ were a staple component presented to induce action on the part of the authorities in a context where progressive mechanisms of social welfare had failed to take root (Zora noted that no municipal social worker was interested in their case). The Bazar article was in fact not Zora’s first public platform to speak about her precarious living conditions. She had appeared on a television programme some years previously in an ad hoc appeal to resolve her difficult housing situation. She then lived in a basement flat into which sewage was leaking. Journalists found out about it and publicised her story. According to Bazar by some turn of fortune she found an audience with Tito himself. ‘Quickly after that I was received by comrade Tito. He listened to me and told me that I was a hero [žena heroj]. Three days after that conversation I got this flat’.

Bazar’s report of Zora’s story reveals some of the dilemmas and contradictions of late socialist Yugoslavia which are the subject of this edited volume. Such concerns include her worries about limited and differential access to education and housing, a concern with falling living standards and reduced social mobility, deficient social welfare and unpredictable responses by the authorities and reflections on the individual’s relation to the state and society couched in the appropriate language of Yugoslav socialism. Zora’s actions, in presenting herself as a ‘social case’ and appealing for an ad hoc solution through a media outlet, indicates a degree of agency; an ability to manoeuvre and navigate difficult conditions. Her story also resonates with cleavages between market forces and political control of the economy. Zora’s fate was publicly invoked by trade union representatives to highlight what they viewed as the unreasonable behaviour on the part of the electricity distributor which failed to cooperate with the trade union in ensuring cheaper electricity for Belgrade’s poor. Indicative of Yugoslavia’s ‘third way’, examples of best practice from Western Europe were provided by the president of the Commission for Living and Working Conditions and Social Policy of the Alliance of Trade Unions, Milorad Vujasinović. He stated that it was well known that electricity was cheaper in other socialist states, but the progressive examples he detailed were the UK, Italy and Belgium,where he claimed the price of electricity was heavily reduced for the poorest citizens.

This volume examines some of the structural causes and social consequences of inequalities in Yugoslavia through case studies of interrelated milieux (such as the workplace, the home, education, migration, rural and urban locales and amongst particular ethno-national communities). It is a collection of historical case studies with contributing authors coming from diverse disciplinary backgrounds (including sociology, anthropology, public policy, economics and ethnomusicology as well as history). It is an attempt to link scholarship from the socialist Yugoslav era to current research based on accessing newly available primary sources and to provide a platform for further explorations of the social history of Yugoslavia. In gathering research by a diverse group of scholars interested in social class we seek to ‘bring class back in’ to (post-) Yugoslav historiography and create a solid base for further debate and research. The contributions that follow explore how theorisations of social class informed the politics and policies of social mobility and, conversely, how societal or grassroots understandings of class may have influenced politics and policy. These processes are examined in a range of Yugoslav locales. Empirical data has been gleaned from across the country, from Slovenia through the bustling industrial suburbs of the federal capital Belgrade to the peripheries of Kosovo, Herzegovina and Dalmatia. Rather than focus on regional differentiation between republics and provinces the emphasis is placed on social differentiation and discontent within particular communities. The case studies have sought to include the voices of a wide spectrum of informants from factory workers and subsistence farmers to fictional television characters and pop-folk music superstars, from precarious rural and urban migrants to wealthy migrant workers and well-to-do children of local elites.

*Research for this chapter was supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF): P27008
(Between class and nation: Working class communities in 1980s Serbia and Montenegro).


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