Nomen est omen

ANALYSIS  Ivan Živkov Published: 23. 12. 2023.

Our daily violence

The unacknowledged virtues of the patriarchy

More than two months have passed since Serbia faced the greatest peacetime tragedy in its modern history. From then until today, the most frequent word in the public space is violence, and the protests and accompanying social processes that started on the occasion of the two mass murders are developing, over time becoming ‘sui generis‘ phenomena and a clear epilogue can not be speculated.

The power reacted as it could be expected, by trying to declare the tragedies as isolated incidents, to place the blame on individuals – monsters, also a bit on the hateful ‘Western values’, with messages that ‘the system did not fail’ and that the state administrators reacted exactly as they should have, both before and after the crimes committed. After facing rivers of people in the streets who were increasingly openly and loudly showing their anger towards the violence that has been produced and spread for a decade by the current president of Serbia and the state propaganda under his strict control, the regime indulged in its favorite sport: discrediting those who gather at protests and proving that they are few or at least less than those who support the leader.

The counter rally organized by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party was in its essence violence against its voters, but also against society as a whole because huge budget funds were spent to pay, feed and bring some tens of thousands of people to Belgrade to pay tribute to the president who told them the same exact thing he could have and which he regularly informs them about on television. The counting did not go as the ‘commander-in-chief’ imagined, because the next day his critics were on the streets in the same numbers and maybe even more, so a new wave of outpouring of his anger and aggression towards ungrateful citizens, whom he called vultures and hyenas, followed. The latest episodes of the regime’s reaction to the protests are the corruption of traditional supporters of every government in this territory with announcements of increased salaries and pensions and a new round of throwing ‘helicopter money’, as well as a cynical campaign against actors with prominent roles in the protests.

The opposition, which at the start of the protest was almost invisible, pulled itself together over time and, encouraged by the number of demonstrators, increasingly took an active role in its organization, to the extent that it caused already traditional polemics about whether someone ‘is taking over the protest’, whether it is in collusion with the power, if so – who it is, is the authentic outpouring of public discontent being prevented by controlled demands, by the choice of speaker, date, location… At the same time, and only seemingly absurdly, all the while we can hear cries from a large number of critics of the current government for a ‘better opposition’, for some charismatic leader or at least an organization which will finally unite and lead all the disaffected in a different, authentic, high-quality way, to the final victory over the Progressive party power.

The demands of the protest are not par excellence oppositional, even though politically they are detrimental for the power, because they do not demand snap elections or the resignation of the government, which would be a logical demand of the opposition in functioning democracies after a major social upheaval and mass anti-government gatherings of citizens. The opposition, however, is primarily thinking about the elections, and that is why it is the loudest when it comes to the part of demands concerning changes in the media sky of Serbia. For some others, for example the demands of education workers to amend the set of laws in education and the criminal law, to achieve greater safety in schools, the opposition did not show much interest.

Have the May tragedies and what followed revealed something new about the society in Serbia? Have more individuals become aware of the level and prevalence of violence, all its forms, causes and consequences, and the patterns of behavior that lead to its extreme manifestations which we have witnessed?

Meanwhile, the school year ended by decree, overnight. If there is no school, there is no violence in it, the state power has concluded in an Alan Ford style. The teachers, with the honor of the few exceptions who publicly rebelled, again mostly bowed their heads and carried out the decree, showing for the umpteenth time since the 1990s that in those structures, which are primarily filled by highly educated individuals, equally so as the utility companies for maintaining cleanliness, which are primarily filled by people from the social margins, have no potential for a more serious, systemic rebellion against the government, no matter how destructive, undemocratic, unprofessional and against the general interests it conducted itself. In most cases, in Serbia doormen and professors alike operate according to the ‘order-execution’ model.

Have the May tragedies and what followed revealed something new about the society in Serbia? Have more individuals become aware of the level and prevalence of violence, all its forms, causes and consequences, and the patterns of behavior that lead to its extreme manifestations which we have witnessed? According to the behavior of the most visible participants of our social scene, the answer is negative. In a time in which almost everyone felt the need to offer an explanation of the cause, genesis and desired direction of action against violence, one gets the impression that one-factor explanations dominate, which as a rule are usually wrong when used in the analysis of complex social phenomena. And just as the power tried to place blame for everything on isolated individuals whose criminal behavior could not be prevented, so is the opposition trying to simplify a big social problem, looking for causes, that is, responsibility, only in the behavior of the power and certain media during the previous decade.

The described situation is not surprising, one could even say that it is typical for collectivist societies. Unlike liberal societies, which are based on the individual who has the right to ask, to doubt, to criticize, to express themselves and, most importantly, to decide independently, seeking compromises with other individuals and adopting rules that equally apply to everyone, in collectivist societies family, party, class or the people are in the center of attention. In such societies, to which undoubtedly the Serbian one belongs, the individual is not important, a sacrifice is expected on their part in the interest of the collective to which they belong, and every attempt at emancipation is labeled and then suppressed as treason.

There are problems in all societies, one of them is violence. And while in liberal societies problems are recognized more quickly, and most often are solved by a procedure known in advance, in collectivist societies problems are identified with great delay, when some senselessness or existential threat is reached, and they are generally not solved until a complete political upheaval or social revolution. This is also the case with the current identification of violence in Serbia. Many have noticed the violence only when children were killed en masse in an elementary school in one day, and passers-by on the street a day later.

A collectivist, patriarchal society encourages the thesis that the family is a private matter of its members.

In the period from 2019 to 2021, more than 36,000 headlines about violence against women were published in the domestic media, according to the analysis by the group ‘female journalists against violence’. In the first half of 2023, in Serbia, at least twenty women were killed in partner and family violence. Although that number is higher than the number of victims in Belgrade and Mladenovac at the beginning of May, it was spread over six months, so it didnt cause a collective shock and reaction. Why aren’t (weren’t) those murders, that violence and such devastating data the trigger for protests?

A collectivist, patriarchal society encourages the thesis that the family is a private matter of its members. Consequently, domestic violence is silenced in public, and those who have less power within the family, those namely being women and children, lose the possibility of external support to get out of potential or realized violence. In collectivist, patriarchal societies men are taught to dominate the family, and sometimes do so violently. Children who grow up in an environment of potential or realized violence later have difficulty knowing other ways of communication and family relations. A society that has such family relations, in which it is normalized (expected) that an individual, to his own detriment, despite obvious absurdities and injustices in certain situations, doesnt contradict someone who is considered the ‘head of the family’, fosters similar patterns in companies, political organizations and institutions.

Since, in Durkheimian terms, it is a matter of collective consciousness which has been internalized into the consciousness of an individual, most people do not recognize the described situation as a problem, nor something which was imposed on them, but accept such relationships as a rather natural phenomenon and a completely normal thing. Obeying the will of a father, husband, director, party leader or head of state even though they are wrong, even though they violate regulations or threaten the rights and freedoms of the one who obeys them, is not recognized as a relationship of violence in our society, even though it is essentially so.

The goal of the bully is to enjoy a status of power and control. As long as they undoubtedly have them, they may not even show their true face. They will even present themselves, and will often be perceived by potential victims, as benefactors and protectors. The moment someone wants to free themselves from the pattern in which they have been subordinated, potential violence turns into real one, and even then society does not detect it to its full extent. Namely, there is also verbal, psychological, economic, sexual violence, harassment, persecution, monitoring… and all this often remains ‘under the radar’ of people and institutions. Usually only physical violence on a larger scale is noticed, which is the tip of the iceberg, that occurs when someone confronts the bully, and they are not taught to tolerate the loss of control and power, but perceives it as an insult, and reaches for physical force to regain their ‘rights’ and punish the ‘offender’. The fact that violence is not sufficiently recognized in its hidden forms is shown by a large number of researches, and this is well illustrated by the very widespread slander over crimes and criminals that we find in media reports. Relatives, friends and neighborhoods of the abuser often declare that ‘no one expected this from them… they were calm and withdrawn… they looked normal, happy… nothing indicated that a tragedy was to follow’ and the like.

Can the citizens of Serbia, such as they are, while consciously or unconsciously accepting and reproducing patterns of behavior that create potential bullies in the family, in the workplace, political organization and institutions, … be able to build a tolerant society without the expansion of violence?

The traditional values of the collectivist, patriarchal society are manifested in its political subsystem as authoritarianism – permanent and great inequality of participants in political life and their inability to freely express and satisfy their needs and interests. The authoritarian value system, in addition to underestimating individuals and making them unequal, also justifies the use of force – violence (of various forms) for the sake of preserving the existing order. It is achieved through state institutions, political parties and the media. Exactly this is what we see and experience in Serbia. In the form of facade democracy, the autocracy in Serbia formally has democratic institutions, but all power is maximally personalized and actually concentrated in the hands of individuals. It rules with the help of the support of an enthusiastic crowd, and it doesn’t use violence at the beginning of its rule, because it doesn’t even need it at that stage. And here we have a situation of non-recognition of violence by a large number of people because they identify with the behavior and politics of the autocrat, they consider it normal and desirable for them to have so much power and that they use it at will. However, when a larger number of people become aware and the political opposition strengthens, the regime is increasingly maintained by force, and violence in society becomes evident. That model, first of covert and then of open violence by authoritarians, is also visible in the depth of society. Recently, we have had the opportunity to get acquainted with a large number of testimonies of people employed in the state and public sector in connection with the pressures to go to the (counter) rally of the ruling party. While they were willingly accepting to be its capillary voters and unquestioning followers, they did not feel violence from the local officials, their managers. Of course, those officials did not become violent overnight, but rather this characteristic of theirs was exposed only when resistance was given or at least attempted.

Authoritarianism represents an obstacle to the development of the individual and society as a whole. An independent and autonomous individual is a prerequisite for social progress. Serbia has a huge deficit of such individuals. Fromm would say that they have run away from freedom, because it is easier for them to live without responsibility, leaving the decision-making to some ‘authority’. There is a saying that explains what is not made of what. Can the citizens of Serbia, such as they are, while consciously or unconsciously accepting and reproducing patterns of behavior that create potential bullies in the family, in the workplace, political organization and institutions, and many even perceive it as a virtue and so-called traditional values, be able to build a tolerant society without the expansion of violence?

Translation to English: Ivana Purtić

The text is published in the printed Bulletin TENANT #18&19, summer 2023.

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