In Praise of Abstinence
From resignation to political association
Even though they were proclaimed by the authorities and the opposition as fateful and crucial for the survival of the country or the continuation of its supposed development and prosperity, the April elections in Serbia did not bring anything new. The expected or timidly desired change of government in difficult election conditions came down to a significant entry of opposition forces into the parliament, the continuation of the (now slightly reduced) dominance of the ruling party and the cementing of voting support for the current president of Serbia. These elections were marked by a slightly higher turnout (about 60%), which was influenced by permanent appeals from all sides to the undetermined part of potential voters to finally declare themselves, in some instances it turned into insults, so we could hear that ’those who do not come out to vote should be ashamed’.
This is where we come to one of the biggest mysteries on the domestic political scene: the secret of the persistent abstinence of a large part of the electorate as a concomitant phenomenon of all electoral processes, which prevents the will of the people from being articulated in a fair way. Although the title of this text might suggest that this is an apology for abstinence and its glorification as an inevitable state of apathy and the consequence of disgust towards politics and politicians, we will try to prove something else: abstaining from voting at the polls is not necessarily an absolute principle that applies for all time, which permanently relieves the responsibility of decision-making, but rather a forced (political!) attitude that rejects the existing offers of parties on the political market and demands alternatives which are not reduced to imposed elections and false dilemmas, but rather strive for the realization of common interests and real needs of people, by political action from below against the official (anti)politics of each power. Before that, it would be good to at least sense who could make up that famed abstention crowd and what motives and reasons they could be guided by in their stubborn refusal of electorial participation and abhor the moralism of the ’civic duty’ of voting on election day.
In other words, political freedoms are permanently sacrificed for the sake of relative and temporary prosperity, which the media can pump up and portray as the upcoming but imperishable Golden Age achieved by the merits of infallible leadership and the modesty of ordinary people, whose patience will be rewarded with gratitude.
First of all, we feel the need to mention that here we are not concerned with those citizens who are not interested in politics and who do not want to bother with things that they supposedly cannot influence. These are the individuals who are content to regularly receive their hard-earned, often mediocre wages and to be able to indulge their feverish consumer passions in peace by visiting shopping malls of their choosing, in order to more easily suppress the frustrations of being bullied by the authorities and blackmailed by arrogant bosses at workplace. In other words, political freedoms are permanently sacrificed for the sake of relative and temporary prosperity, which the media can pump up and portray as the upcoming but imperishable Golden Age achieved by the merits of infallible leadership and the modesty of ordinary people, whose patience will be rewarded with gratitude.
This condition is best illustrated by the ideological abuse of the unfortunate maxim, shamelessly and cynically launched from the top of the power, which reads: Just you do your job! This mournful statement of the desperate martyr from Jasenovac spoken in front of the Ustasha executioners abounds with symbolic meanings and messages, but two contexts are particularly significant for this topic. In both cases, it is exploited by the power. The president of the state and the ruling party uses it in order to describe all the hardships and pains of his hard-to-endure position, which he nevertheless holds firmly in his hands for the sake of all of us, despite all the pressures coming from external enemies, mainly from the West, and against salon criticism, media slander and blows to the honor of the president’s family by the tycoon opposition. In another sense, the aforementioned motto carries a more insidious message: just you do your job diligently, because there is work to be done (unless you are malicious towards the state and constantly complain about bad conditions, overtime or low wages), and leave the thankless and painstaking work of dealing with politics to those who carry it out, who’s job it is, i.e. party functionaries and experts who know the technology of power, inaccessible to ordinary people who are preoccupied with their daily worries about survival, so they have neither the time nor the will to delve into the secrets of the political craft, which is thereby mystified or, even worse, trivialized by populism, which should deter from politics those who know something about it, while leaving the uninterested to be guided or forcing them into apathy. Such a discourse encourages abstinence of the apolitical type and the belief that everyone should do their job, rulers should rule, servants should serve, because that is how it has always been, which means it will remain so.
The simple populace as the reservoir from which the blackmailed voting army from public companies is supplied is perceives as the antipode to the Sisyphean efforts of small entrepreneurs to survive in the environment of the omnipresent state which prevents the supposed equality of opportunity in the market.
And so we remain in a vicious cycle of stupidity in which the power, the people and the media play around with fanfare announcing peace and stability, the prerequisite of which is that the people remain calm and amused by their work. But we all already know this, we just need to be reminded of it sometimes. On that trail, we will dare to take a short journey to attempt a class analysis that could indicate the social root of abstinence, the causes of which are in the power relations that enabled and continue to maintain the decade-long rule of the current regime. Namely, one gets the impression that the dark glow of the false Golden Age rests on the class compromise of the main social actors between which an unstable balance has been established. Holders of large capital are connected to the state power through various corrupt arrangements, which enables them to carry out their work without hindrance with the consent or support of that power. On the other hand, broad sections of the working and lower middle classes are satisfied with the increased availability of job vacancies, because they still have fresh memories of mass unemployment from the DOS era (Democratic Opposition of Serbia), which the regime media often reminds us of. Whereby they keep silent that the desperation of those low-paid jobs must be compensated by slaving away, which represents the potential for dissatisfaction of those classes and their political engagement. Or it leads to treading water in abstinence, if one accepts reconciliation with such a situation. Finally, we have members of the middle class who openly expressed their dissatisfaction, and they were the stepping stone for the opposition party to reach the National Assembly. These are groups that have been left without systemic support from the state, left to the gusts of the market forces and the fear of pauperization, they are looking for support in a legally regulated state, which will guarantee them a safe place in the golden middle and avoiding the extremes between the mafia in power and the primitive masses blinded by reality entertainment, which are perceived as a voting machine of the ruling party. From this perspective, the proletarian base and the regime tycoons from the management of state-owned companies are two sides of the same coin, the same voice for the SPP (Serbian Progressive Party). The simple populace as the reservoir from which the blackmailed voting army from public companies is supplied is perceives as the antipode to the Sisyphean efforts of small entrepreneurs to survive in the environment of the omnipresent state which prevents the supposed equality of opportunity in the market. And they just want to do their job, by raising themselves above the hired wretches with their own work, while the state should only stand by as long as the work is going well. The political demands of these classes are often directed against irrational state expenditures and construction and urban planning projects in support of increasing the comfort of a thin layer of the extremely rich. By asking the state to help domestic businessmen, instead of squandering subsidies to foreigners, this civic activism is flocking to the arms of the right and its grumbling against foreign investors. It is important to change the bosses, and let the others do their job. If you don’t like it, voting for the lesser evil is recommended, thus admitting one’s own impotence and capitulating to the ’real’. And voting based on conviction is out of the question, because it is said to be an excuse for passivity. The ultimate pragmatism: you have the freedom to choose your oppressors, and leave your beliefs at home and pretend to be smart in front of your friends.
One can often hear, especially just before the elections, the voices of those who insist on proving that ’not everyone is the same’. That is true, but we are concerned with the similarities which connect them and make them resemble each other. It is now worth mentioning something about those common characteristics that distinguish our political parties, because they significantly affect abstinence during voting and political (in)decision.
The first thing that sticks out is the absence of ideology as a clear value orientation, which should ensure the widest possible support of voters and avoid drastic polarizations in the electorate. This is also observed in the programs of the parties, which combine elements of left and right ideologies, without taking into account their incompatibility. This is to show their willingness to appreciate complex reality as opposed to stubborn insistence on abstract principles. However, this only opens the door for the penetration of the careerist eager for power at any cost, which will reduce the ideology to demagoguery.
The highest level of agreement of all major political actors was reached on the issue of Kosovo, whose independence is decisively rejected.
Now we come to another important feature of political parties: reliance on loyal personnel and emphasis on the importance of leadership. The party membership is expected to follow the ’politics’ of the top of the party, which is often personalized in the form of one person, who can be at its head for decades, in order to preserve its recognition among the broad masses, who are assumed to be politically illiterate, to which the parties largely contributed themselves.
And finally: parties structured in this way often resort to homogenizing the public and voters by playing the card of patriotism. Instead of nurturing the values of peace and solidarity among nations, with inciting statements, neighbors in the region are portrayed as executioners and criminals, and their own people as eternally threatened and unprotected, so they constantly need guardianship in the form of a leader with a firm hand. The highest level of agreement of all major political actors was reached on the issue of Kosovo, whose independence is decisively rejected. Only the non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence allows the intrusion of ideology, but in the form of a mythology that should cover all divisions, in order to bring only one to the fore: the gap between the Serbian and Albanian people, which should be deepened by hatred and mutual distrust. And everyone agrees on that, only some, more arrogant, would return the ’abducted’ with fire and iron, and others, more modest, would snatch at least a piece of ’our’ territory from the north of Kosovo, and both of them would never see or hear any Albanians in their vicinity again.
And if everything is so, then who to vote for? For those for whom the right-wing options are out of the question, electoral abstinence is imposed as a temporary way out in order to preserve personal and political integrity and potentially a clearer insight of the situation at a distance and margin which prevents the dissipation of forces on false alternatives. While they wait for the eventual and possible appearance of a ’stubborn minority’ that could threaten the dominance of official quasi-politics with a radically different discourse, by striking a chord with the real interests and needs of the disaffected whose voice is not heard, citizens eager for political action are always left with self-organization or joining some of the existing associations of citizens. In this way, abstinence, in a slow underground pace under and against the institutions, would turn into its opposite: from the tragic state of resignation of condemned individuals to united political subjects who dare do what they want.
Translation to English: Ivana Purtić
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Published: 22. 02. 2024.
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