Deregulated autocracy and its ‘sustainable’ violence
The power of the powerless
‘Power and violence are opposites: where the one rules, the other is absent’: is the formula which Hannah Arendt comes up with in her book On Violence (1970). Even though she does not dispute that every state is an instrument of violence commanded by the ruling class, she concludes that ‘the power of the ruling class does not consist of violence, nor does it rely on violence, but that the power of the ruling class lies in its position in society, and above all in its position in the production process.’ 1 Organizing the production process is also the main social task of the ruling class – the more successful it is in organizing production, the greater its power, the less acute the internal contradictions, and resorting to violence less certain.
If one was to search for the main reason for the rapid accumulation of power by the Serbian Progressive Party since it came to be in power, then it would be precisely the fiasco of the previous, ‘democratic’ power to organize production. Social contradictions then piled up and the democratic power, as befits it, did not even consider using force to ensure the staying in power and replace its own powerlessness with violence. Precisely these two ‘weaknesses’ of the previous administration became the central characteristics of the progressive power: on the one hand, it acted ‘robustly’ in an attempt to organize production (and created ideological fetishes through the slogans ‘opening new jobs’, ‘Serbia creates’, ‘economic tiger’, etc.) and on the other hand, it never hesitated to show that its desire for power is so strong that it was ready to use violence in order to maintain that power. The neoliberal aspect of the progressive power has merged seamlessly into the legacy of radical violence, the legacy of war crimes, persecution of other nations, political assassinations and terror against political dissenters. In the dialectics of production and violence, violence of production and production of violence, Vučić‘s government found the power formula. Here, we will foremost talk about the production of violence, but the violence of production also kills – a terrible example of which is the tragedy in the Soko mine when eight miners died due to the production ambitions of the mine management, which put the number of tons of coal far ahead of the safety of work and life of the workers.
An autocrat rules with the support of the powerless. And here we are not referring to the simple fact that the autocrat must make people powerless so that they would not threaten the autocratic power, but he must also delegate the powerlessness of that power to them.
The power in Serbia has turned social contradictions, which as a rule signal the weakness of some political power, into an advantage – in Serbia, every contradiction has become a tool of the power. The main contradiction is probably this one: while Vučić‘s power tried to rely on the support of disenfranchised, humiliated and impoverished citizens, the class in whose name it ruled was actually the financial and corporate class – both newly formed and the one inherited from the ‘democratic’ period – which discovered in the autocratic system of governing the possibility of gaining the support of the masses for its interests. Mediation between the ruling class and the masses is done by the autocrat through the hyper-production of a cacophony of ideological affectations. Although in democratic systems it is implied that political legitimacy comes from the will of the majority, the autocrat is actually in need of wider support in society even more.2 Meanwhile, that support, however interpellated by ideological media propaganda, depends in fact and solely on the crucial structural powerlessness of those who provide support: every autocracy is based on depriving the power to those you are seeking the support from. An autocrat rules with the support of the powerless. And here we are not referring to the simple fact that the autocrat must make people powerless so that they would not threaten the autocratic power, but he must also delegate the powerlessness of that power to them.
Autocracies most often fall when social contradictions lead to such destabilization of autocratic power that the autocrat must turn to violence through state instruments of force as a cover for lost power. Vučić’s power thus far has very rarely been compelled to use official instruments of force, but here we endeavor to claim that it organized the instruments of state violence in accordance with its economic and political project – which is the project of economic and widespread privatization and deregulation, which through autocratic power is controlled by the same elite in whose name that project is being implemented. Unlike modern autocracies that, regardless of their ideological background, relied on the state and its instruments of coercion, the deregulated autocracy in the neoliberal order knows that such a system cannot fully rely on the state. Hence, it’s working not only to weaken the democratic institutions of power control, but also to organize the deregulation and privatization of a number of authorities which were in the domain of the state and which the state itself declared to be ‘economically unsustainable’. The state in the service of deregulated autocracy remains to operate as an administrative tool in the hands of the ruling class that implements and manages this process. In other words, the state increasingly renounces many of its prerogatives, except that it still remains what it is by its very nature: an instrument of violence.
Instead of the power taking the risk of defending itself with state instruments of force as its last resort (same as in modern autocracies), the state becomes a sort of a manager and coordinator of violent groups and organizations – which can be most simply supported with the example that even the Secretary General of the Government of the Republic of Serbia coordinates and leads a group of thugs with the task of breaking farmers’ blockades.
Given the scope of this undertaking, it has become unusually important for a deregulated autocracy to somehow deregulate, privatize, and transfer the instruments of violence to micro-levels of implementation. A deregulated autocracy cannot rely solely on state instruments, no matter how much it manages to master them, because it knows it cannot count on those instruments to protect it in every situation. That is, instead of the power taking the risk of defending itself with state instruments of force as its last resort (same as in modern autocracies), the state becomes a sort of a manager and coordinator of violent groups and organizations – which can be most simply supported with the example that even the Secretary General of the Government of the Republic of Serbia coordinates and leads a group of thugs with the task of breaking farmers’ blockades. Such a drastic example of the deregulation of state violence is only one of the last cases with which we can show that the organization of capillary violence carried out by the Vučić regime is a kind of preventive mechanism: to inject violence directly into society, make it social, and not save it exclusively as a dispositive of the power for the last instance.
Vučić‘s power strategy is capillary: he knows that his power does not reside in the institutions of the democratic system, and he has long ago made them powerless by turning them into places of violence – starting with violence in the assembly, through violence in public companies, all the way to local municipalities, and finally, as it used to be said, to ‘every sphere of society’. Violence is no longer the last, but has become the central instance of power. Without violence, the power cannot be maintained, but the power knows that this violence cannot only be on the side of the centralized power: it must become decentralized, capillary, deregulated and privatized in order to become effective for the maintenance of the ruling system and the ruling class. Hence it has become vital to borrow some of the authority of state instruments of force to micro levels where they can be used as needed on behalf of those, or at least part of those, who provide the much needed support on which the power of the ruler rests. Deregulated state violence produces the possibility for everyone to have their own instrument of violence in the name of the ruler, the state and the ruling class. And here it was made possible through a whole media-propaganda project in which violence is presented as a kind of necessity of social relations as such – because only a violent society is absolutely powerless to threaten absolute power.
Deregulated violence allows any bully to, at least for a moment, become part of the power.
And on the example of the power’s media-propaganda project, the way in which the media incites violence in the public space, it can also be clearly seen what kind of process it is. The public media service, as a traditional instrument of state propaganda, cannot fully serve that much propaganda ambitions, therefore the power relies far more on private media, which it can manage much more dynamically and directly, because its politics is also in their keen interest. In its future downfall, the power will defend Pink TV more decisively through private security than it will defend RTS with the police.
Deregulated violence allows any bully to, at least for a moment, become part of the power. It’s a matter of a serious political perversion: in order to hide its own weakness, which necessarily strives towards violence, the power transfers the instruments of force to society, which thus, becoming more and more violent, ceases to be society, loses political power, and above all the power of social organization and collective action. Let us take from here the consequences of the thesis which the theorist Vivek Chiber points out in several places: the main strategy of the capitalist system is to manage the social conflict that it knows is its inevitable consequence, as it knows that this conflict, the class conflict, must be articulated in a certain way.3 Hence, capitalism begins to manage this conflict through its identity simulacrums, culturalizes the conflict, pulverizes the capacities for the common, and turns conflicts into affects that constantly oscillate on a scale from excess enthusiasm to excess helplessness – as Latour (Bruno Latour) says, speaking of capitalism as of our ‘second nature’. This all is taking place precisely in order to prevent such accumulated contradictions from being answered with a single collective action. The management of social conflict in Serbia today (as a deregulated capitalist autocracy) takes on a form of establishing a system of sustainable violence, violence which begins to self-reproduce even without the direct involvement of the power, but which remains under its management and is in its interest.
This was recognized by the citizens at the protests under the slogan ‘Serbia against violence’, interpreting the two tragic occasions not as examples of the individual pathology of their perpetrators, but as symptoms of the principles of governance. But, given that the tragic events which are the cause of the protests cannot be directly linked to the deregulated violence of the power, these events actually show that their ‘inspirer’ is not and cannot be ‘Vučić’ as such, but rather that it is about much deeper mechanisms of order which replaces its powerlessness with violence and which name is ‘Vučić’. The crimes in Belgrade and Mladenovac have once again shown that the perpetrators of violence are men and the victims are mainly women: out of ten victims of the boy killer, eight are female. In both crimes, the patriarchal figure of the father, or grandfather, takes on a central role, of the one who arms and trains for violence. When this pattern is applied in an ‘elite school’, then it is articulated through the drive of the capitalist system: the drive of competitiveness. The child killer thus embodies all the perversion of imposed demands and articulates his own powerlessness in the face of those demands into violence.
Although the several years long deregulated violence of Vučić‘s governance achieved effects in depriving citizens of the will to organize politically, citizens entered into an alliance with opposition political parties and accepted that political parties must be the ones to define political demands and organize protests. The power is hence confused and even shaken by these protests, because it did not expect them, since the previous cases of deregulated violence (except in the case of the ‘Stop the bloody shirts’ protest) have mostly gone by without any significantly organized reaction from the people, since they served precisely to destroy such organized action. These protests are not a forum which will be able to play out the full game of the grueling political struggle that lies ahead in Serbia, but they are a forum where citizens finally met each other in public space, and more importantly which motivated women and men who were victims of capillary political violence of the authorities to go public and expose the mechanisms of that violence. If the main goal of deregulated violence is to instill fear and apathy, and deter political organization, then the first step in the fight against violent power has been taken. The second step will be much more complicated and the prerequisite for it will no longer only be the feeling of shock and non-compliance, but also a political decision, an act of political commitment, an act of political action.
1 Hannah Arendt, On violence, New York, 1970, page 11.
2 Arendt, On violence, page. 41.
3 See for example the lecture Viveka Chibbera “Consent, Coercion and Resignation: The Sources of Stability in Capitalism” at the Center for Labor Studies in Zagreb, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2dcVoQbhFtQ
Translation to English: Ivana Purtić
The text is published in the printed Bulletin TENANT #18&19, summer 2023.
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