Rory Archer (2018) “‘It was better when it was worse’: blue-collar narratives of
the recent past in Belgrade”, Social History, 43:1, 30-55
ABSTRACT: Based on oral history research conducted among networks of blue-collar workers in Belgrade, Serbia, this article develops three interrelated arguments regarding workers’ appraisals of the recent past (1980–2014). Firstly, although the tumultuous years of late socialism and post-socialism in Serbia have been represented by scholars as a series of ruptures, I suggest that for blue-collar workers the boundaries between socialism and post-socialism and pre-conflict and wartime eras are blurry. Secondly, despite the conditions of war and economic collapse, blue-collar accounts of the 1990s in Serbia are not universally negative. Some individuals experienced upward social mobility, strongly influenced by class and gender positioning in late socialism. Female workers who had experienced hardship during the 1980s were often better equipped to navigate 1990s ‘economies of makeshift’. Thirdly, social dislocation associated with neoliberal economic reforms since 2000 disproportionally affects blue-collar workers, reshaping narratives of late socialism and the 1990s (sometimes inducing workers to overlook or downplay coercive aspects of the Milošević regime). The accounts of this diverse group of (former) workers highlight that social class, gender and generational cohort condition the rather divergent ways in which the last three decades were experienced, are remembered and continue to be reevaluated in Serbia.
We are pleased to announce publication of an open access article by Rory Archer in History and Anthroplogy, “The moral economy of home construction in late socialist Yugoslavia” (29:2, 2018).
Housing shortages in Yugoslav cities were a perennial concern for authorities and citizens alike. They disproportionately affected Yugoslav workers who as a consequence were the demographic most likely to independently construct a family home. The article explores how informal builders justified home construction in moral terms, legitimizing it on the basis of physical labour that was invested in home construction. This was couched in both the language register of Yugoslav socialism and patriarchal custom (according to which a male-headed household should enjoy the right to a family home). Construction was also conditioned by the opportunities and constraints of late socialist temporalities.
Here are a few of accompanying pictures that did not make it into the published text.
The first image is an interview in folk music magazine Sabor with Tomislav “Mali mrav” Čolović with the headline “Brick by brick – three houses”. The lead text is underscored by notions of morality in home building. Čolović declares “The singer of newly composed folk music, our host Čolović, known also as “Mali mrav” [Little ant]: Look at these houses in the neighbourhood, for half of them I laid half the bricks myself. And I’m not ashamed. I worked honourably and honestly – I didn’t steal. Now that I have it, I want to enjoy it!'”
Protagonist Staniša Simić’s rogue construction was destroyed by authorities in Belgrade. In a 1983 interview with tabloid weekly Novosti 8 the cook implores: “If they had to destroy it, did they have to do it so evilly? Nobody has their house levelled like that; they always usually let the person take out the materials, not to totally destroy him. Nobody builds a house out of anger!”
Abstract: The socialist factory, as the ‘incubator’ of the new socialist (wo)man, is a productive entry point for the study of socialist modernization and its contradictions. By outlining some theoretical and methodological insights gathered through field-research in factories in former Yugoslavia, we seek to connect the state of labour history in the Balkans to recent breakthroughs made by labour historians of other socialist countries. The first part of this article sketches some of the specificities of the Yugoslav self-managed factory and its heterogeneous workforce. It presents the ambiguous relationship between workers and the factory and demonstrates the variety of life trajectories for workers in Yugoslav state-socialism (from model communists to alienated workers). The second part engages with the available sources for conducting research inside and outside the factory advocating an approach which combines factory and local archives, print media and oral history.
Keywords: Yugoslavia, Yugoslav working class, socialism, workers’ self-management, factory sources,
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.
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).
2. What nationalism has buried: Yugoslav social scientists on the crisis, grassroots powerlessness and Yugoslavism (Ana Dević)
3. The gastarbajteri as a transnational Yugoslav working class (Brigitte Le Normand)
4. ‘Paid for by the workers, occupied by the bureaucrats’: housing inequalities in 1980s Belgrade (Rory Archer) Chapter 4 Archer
5. Education, conflict and class reproduction in socialist Yugoslavia (Jana Bacevic)
6. Roma between ethnic group and an ‘underclass’ as portrayed through newspaper discourses in socialist Slovenia (Julija Sardelić)
7. Of social inequalities in a socialist society: the creation of a rural underclass in Yugoslav Kosovo (Isabel Ströhle)
8 ‘They came as workers and left as Serbs’: the role of Rakovica’s blue-collar workers in Serbian social mobilisations of the late 1980s (Goran Musić) Chapter 8 Music
9 ‘ Buy me a silk skirt mile!’ Celebrity culture, gender and
social positioning in socialist Yugoslavia (Ana Hofman and Polona Sitar)
10 When capitalism and socialism get along best: tourism, consumer culture and the idea of progress in Malo misto (Igor Duda)
Socialist countries like Yugoslavia garnered legitimacy through appealing to social equality. Yet social stratification was characteristic of Yugoslav society and increased over the course of the state’s existence. By the 1980s the country was divided on socio-economic as well as national lines. Through case studies from a range of social millieux, contributors to this volume seek to ‘bring class back in’ to Yugoslav historiography, exploring how theorisations of social class informed the politics and policies of social mobility and conversely, how societal or grassroots understandings of class have influenced politics and policy. Rather than focusing on regional differentiation between Yugoslav republics and provinces the emphasis is placed on social differentiation and discontent within particular communities. The contributing authors of these historical studies come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, linking scholarship from the socialist era to contemporary research based on accessing newly available primary sources. Voices of a wide spectrum of informants are included in the volume; from factory workers and subsistence farmers to fictional television characters and pop-folk music superstars.