Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.
The Occupy movement began in the United States – at a statue of a bull standing in the heart of Wall Street in New York City. It spread quite rapidly to other places around the country and around the world. In many locations, it built on or connected to pre-existing movements that had been working on questions of economic inequality for some time. But for many people, it was their introduction to activism.
In the United States, at least, the movement resisted both conventional leadership and conventional political program. It favored a more decentralized approach to both structure and content. It wasn’t that Occupy lacked a leader or a program. It had plenty of both. Indeed, to quote Walt Whitman, Occupy “contained multitudes.” And, like the poet, it sometimes contradicted itself. But Occupy never promised uniformity or consistency.
Perhaps the chief defect of Occupy had nothing to do with these purported weaknesses. It had to do with process. In many Occupy movements across the United States, the participants could only move forward on projects with the consensus of the group. In a relatively homogenous group, such as Quakers, consensus can be an effective tool for decision-making and group cohesion. But Occupy was far from homogenous. Even the “modified consensus” that some of the groups used, which required 90 percent approval on proposals, frequently came up against a minority bloc determined to dig in its heels.
In Slovenia, the Occupy movement started with a big demonstration on October 15, 2011. It was already getting quite cold in the country, but the protestors managed to maintain their encampment in the capital city of Ljubljana until the spring. Although the actual camp disbanded in mid-May 2012, many of the initiatives begun by Occupy activists continued in a decentralized way.
This O15 movement – named for the October 15 gathering – avoided some of the procedural challenges of the American Occupy movement by sticking to a rather simple rule. “We didn’t search for consensus among everyone who met at the General Assembly,” anthropologist and O15 participant Sara Pistotnik explained. “The forum was open to new initiatives. Even if you came three months after the occupation and you had an idea for a workshop that would then develop into some campaign, you could propose it. As long as there were no strong ethical objections, you could proceed.”
She continued, “If you had a campaign on housing or the deinstitutionalization of people from mental institutions, then you had the autonomy to do that work, also because you had some experience dealing with this issue before. For us it would be unproductive to try to achieve consensus around these really specific social issues. And it would be a big shame to try to unify them into some common campaign.”
David Brown, who has been in Slovenia as both a researcher and an activist, compared the situation to the U.S. movement. “We met with Occupy Maine from the university,” he told me. “They were basically saying that the movement in Maine didn’t do anything. They had interesting discussions around various topics. But every time they had substantive debates about what to do, there were people who said, ‘That’s stupid. I don’t understand the point.’ And they were shut down. But it went very smoothly here in Ljubljana because we had this mechanism of just go and do it.”
Both Sara Pistotnik and David Brown have been active with Rog, a center for social activism in Ljubljana. Activists have been squatting this former bicycle factory for several years, and it has become a space for radical politics and art comparable to what Metelkova was for the previous generation. Ljubljana has this activist advantage over most other cities. Squatters have been involved in their own indigenous “occupy” movements since the early 1990s.
Back in October, we met at a bar in Ljubljana to talk about Rog, a topic I’d discussed with Sara four years before. Over beer and grilled meat, we also talked about the nature of social movements, the status of the Erased, and the virtues of street theater like the Clown Army.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Sara Pistotnik: I don’t know if I remember the day. I visualize the moment but probably from the tapes afterward.
David Brown: I was in France when the Wall came down. I don’t have any distinct memories either except seeing the images on TV. I remember it being addressed in school. I was in third grade. I remember realizing that it had happened. But the significance wasn’t so strong for me.
How did you get involved in social movements?
Sara Pistotnik: I was working for a small company dealing with arts but in an engaged kind of way. I got an assignment to work on a script for a documentary on the Erased. Since I’m an anthropologist I was supposed to do some research and interviews with the Erased. Through this research, I met everyone involved in this campaign in 2005. Slowly I got involved in this campaign and then in other campaigns. In 2006, I got involved in Rog. Becoming part of that space was very important for me then.
Was that a big leap for you? Were you involved in any political action before that?
Sara Pistotnik: I was just a regular leftist supporting the manifestations and different things that were happening in Slovenia. But I was not actively involved in organizing them. I knew the scene, but I was not part of it.
David Brown: It was basically through the Social Center at Rog. It was a huge leap. I’d never been involved in any form of activism or political activity prior to coming to Slovenia about a year ago. I’d never been to a demonstration or anything like that. I’d met two activists from the Social Center in the United States through an academic connection. They were presenting some of their work specifically around migration and the Erasure. I was really interested in what they were doing, and that was one of the reasons I chose my program in Italy, because it gave me a chance to come to Ljubljana to work with them.
When I arrived, it was a few weeks before Zuccotti Park was occupied in New York. Within a month, we had the 15th of October (15O), which was a huge demonstration in Ljubljana. Within the Center we decided to organize ourselves. I’d been coming to Social Center meetings because of this connection. I thought I’d write my thesis on migration. But both the Social Center and how the movement emerged and organized itself became so engaging for me that I decided that I should really write about the movement. I was spending all my time in the encampment or the Social Center. That’s how my thesis started focusing on this issue but also how I got locked into the movement.
I’d like to get an update on Rog. Last time we talked, Sara, you described how the city put forward a plan for the use of the space, but folks were not happy with it because it didn’t have a large public component. You said the intention of the squat was to remain until some use was developed for the property. You also mentioned the city couldn’t just tear down the factory, because it’s quite old and of historical value, and had to do something with it. So, what’s happened since?
Sara Pistotnik: In one sentence: the economic crisis was very positive for Rog. The municipality made a plan and had some public tenders. The idea was later to form this area into a contemporary art center, focused mostly on the so-called creative industries, and to make this into a common space that joins art and economy. The main building, which is a heritage site, would be transformed into this center, but also some shops and garages would be built. The form would be public-private ownership. The municipality would give the space and the building, and the private investors would build all the rest. The municipality has tried to get private investors. But since 2008, the crisis hit Slovenia quite hard, especially in the construction sector. It’s hard to get anyone to invest in such a risky plan. Until they get a private investor, we’re quite safe.
But the municipality could decide to tear down the side buildings, where the Social Center is located, and make a parking lot. Right now we have no evidence that this is happening, though the municipality asked for all the permissions. The tearing down of these side buildings is part of the ecological cleanup. Even if the municipality doesn’t find a private investor, it could still decide to tear down these side buildings and block the area. But the municipality doesn’t have the money provided for this in the budget. There is no dialogue with the municipality. We are tolerated, but there is no negotiating process going on. We are just left alone there for the moment.
There were also some artists in studios in the main building.
Sara Pistotnik: The main building is experiencing revitalization. There are not just artists in the studios but also a skate park on the first floor. There’s also a concert hall, some graffiti collectives, some breakdance collectives. Despite all odds, the main building is alive. But during the winter, the activities are shut down because the infrastructure is very expensive. And we are still without electricity.
You had generators.
Sara Pistotnik: We still do. But it’s impossible to heat the big spaces in the main buildings during the winter.
Is the level of participation in terms of people roughly the same?
Sara Pistotnik: With these new or expanded collectives, participation is a bit bigger than before. But it fluctuates with the seasons. Still, there are no unused spaces. But it’s still precarious because of the infrastructure. The electricity is really expensive and we also have problems with heating.
What’s the relationship between Rog and Metelkova?
Sara Pistotnik: I think that both Rog and Metelkova are quite complex organisms. In spaces as big as these, which are quite big for a city as small as Ljubljana, you have a really complex way of organizing contacts. The connections between the two are really different. On some points, you have mutual support and on others you have different opinions. Rog is more precarious because of Metelkova because it’s only 500 meters away. One reason to tear down Rog is that Metelkova exists, and a city like Ljubljana doesn’t need another squat as big as this. On the other hand, because Metelkova is more established in the city and has its own history, it’s also positive for Rog, because of all the positive effects of Metelkova on the city itself.
David Brown: There’s nothing in my life experience to compare it to. Coming into both spaces was really a positive experience for me. I have a very different relationship with Metelkova than with Rog. Rog was always the place to go for political organizing, to be in the Social Center. Politically, it’s where I was socialized. I have the keys, so it’s a space where I feel like I can go at any moment, and it doesn’t feel weird if I’m there and someone comes in. At a personal level, Rog is a very empowering experience. I’ve felt really engaged in the space because there wasn’t a strict hierarchy.
Metelkova has been for me the place to go to for some meetings but also where we go to consume alcohol at a party. It’s more of a consumption space than Rog, at least in my experience. But there are also political initiatives organized at Metelkova. And we have a common office established for two days a week at Metelkova that is for precarious workers who are working in decentralized conditions. They can use that space as an office on Wednesday and Thursday.
Why did you decide to have that office at Metelkova and not at Rog?
David Brown: Because of the electricity. And the Internet. At Rog, we have to run the generator, which is approximately seven euros an hour. And we don’t have a very good Internet connection because we capture a signal from a nearby building and boost it. But it’s unstable. At Metelkova, we have electricity from the city and a proper Internet connection. It’s much easier to use the office there.
Do you have more contacts with Metelkova, Sara?
Sara Pistotnik: I have more contact with Metelkova because I was born in this city. When I was young, Metelkova was basically the place where I was socialized. It’s important to add that Metelkova often supported our campaigns through solidarity and cooperation by providing a space or helping with benefits.
It was interesting when you talked earlier about the gentrified and the non-gentrified sections of Metelkova. Was that part of the original idea of Metelkova, that there were would be a section that was organized politically and another section organized economically?
Sara Pistotnik: You should probably talk to someone from Metelkova. But Metelkova is not a completely secure state. It’s not legalized. They’re struggling all the time. It was a sort of compromise where half of the building is in public use and half is grassroots. But that doesn’t mean it will stay like this. Twenty years later, half of the same army barrack complex was left to the grassroots and the city invested in the other half where there’s an art museum and some parts of the ministry of culture. But you can see the visual difference. One half is nice and clean, with yellow facades, and a big open space in the middle, but it’s dead. The other half, the autonomous half is changing all the time, and so many things are happening there.
Do you think there’s a tension between NGOs and more informal movements here in Slovenia?
Sara Pistotnik: It depends. On a general level, the tension between the movements and the NGOs can be very creative – as long as everybody is aware of each other’s positions and we’re not pretending that this is all one thing or that NGOs are sufficient as a critical left structure. Then it’s possible to have different campaigns and alliances and stay on a creative path. The tensions don’t have to be bad.
Non-institutionalized movements have more space to move from topic to topic, from campaign to campaign. NGOs are more fixed on particular projects. On the other hand, movements have problems with sustainability and continuity because of people’s exhaustion, their overwork, or their need to do other things in life. Of course I would prefer that NGOs would be more radical or flexible. On the other hand, I’m completely aware that they’re trapped in systemic trends and functions. They have a relationship with the state where they see lobbying as a methodology to change things. It would be nice if they understood that movements sometimes have to be more radical and need more space. But that doesn’t mean you have to unite all campaigns to work together.
How do you make movements sustainable without institutionalizing them?
Sara Pistotnik: This is an ongoing process, and it depends on what’s happening. One part of sustainability is making space for campaigns. Even informal movements need some structure. But that’s not the last answer. Every day, you need to ask yourself how to make engagement joyful.
David Brown: I think that there is almost a contradiction between movement and sustainability. A movement cannot be sustainable if it just sticks with one form of struggle. That’s basically what an NGO does: it shifts only within a really strict framework. But a movement is really alive, in the sense that it is always responding to the objective conditions it encounters. I wouldn’t talk about a movement being sustainable but rather about it being effective and remaining open and moving forward on the issues that it is addressing. Places like Metelkova and Rog are really vital for that.
There is now a tendency to develop online spaces. The movements in Spain have really invested a lot in developing on-line communication. This is important, but it doesn’t replace a physical environment and the ability to sit around a table and discuss with one another and organize people. Places like the Social Center have been places where the migrant community and folks from asylum homes could come without anyone questioning them or asking them why they were there or if their documentation was in order.
I don’t have much connection to the NGO scene here. My only comment is that NGOs didn’t really show up in the movements. This speaks a lot to what Sara was saying about the confines within which the NGOs operate. They’re working on a project, a three-year plan, and all these goals to meet. So it’s really hard when a new context emerges, as it did here on October 15 last year, to shift. If they are already locked into something, there are no resources to be readily engaged on something new.
At the same time, some of the people who were taking part in the movement are really embedded in NGOs and they’re also very critical of NGOs. They successfully point out when NGOs were organizing something and were completely missing what either the movement had done or past movements had done. I’m thinking of this roundtable when one of the organizers in a union of subcontracted workers in the port of Koper was fired. It was pretty obvious that he was fired because of his position as a union organizer. A roundtable was organized at Metelkova, and they didn’t invite anyone from the Social Center, even though the Social Center had been part of organizing this union and also had all this experience in the context of migration. Things like this happen because the there’s so much distance between NGOs and movements. When something happens, NGOs sometimes miss it and only five years later do they have a project on the same topic.
Let’s talk about Occupy here. When you mentioned it, you sounded a little skeptical.
Sara Pistotnik: I was skeptical not about the methodology but because it started on October 15 in Slovenia. That’s not the best day to start camping here.
It started here with a manifestation on October 15, the global day of actions. We decided, through the assembly, to occupy the square in front of the stock exchange. So, it was part of the global movement with local characteristics. We stayed there until May 15. It was an interesting experience on many levels. It was outdoors, not the usual indoor space, and it was in the middle of the city. It opened up the political space not just because it was in the middle of the city but also because of the content. Through its actions, Occupy here allowed the expression of many marginalized topics. It wasn’t just an encampment. There were different actions and public events. It wasn’t just in front of the stock exchange but in other spaces as well, including the occupation of the faculties of art and social work. Some things were also happening in other parts of Slovenia.
Also interesting was one of it postulates: nobody represents us. That was the message spread all over the world through these encampments. In Slovenia, it was a funny situation because the pre-election campaign began on November 4th, with the election on December 4th. It was fascinating to see which topics came out through Occupy and which topics came out through the official pre-election campaign. They were completely disconnected. We were raising issues like the cuts in social transfers, the debt, the evictions, education and the health care, topics that are now quite crucial. Before, we made a campaign on a specific topic like the Erasure in which one part of the population had their rights violated. Now we’re speaking of a situation in which the whole Slovenian society is having its rights violated. But the pre-election show just went on.
In the United States, Occupy did succeed in pushing the topic of inequality into the mainstream debate both in media and eventually politics. Did that happen here as well?
Sara Pistotnik: Here there wasn’t a problem with the reaction of the media. The media was really open to it. But it didn’t get into the political discourse. Here the only solution to the crisis is still austerity measures. What we said didn’t become part of official politics. Still, it opened the space so that this topic could become part of the public discourse. We also raised topics like the destigmatization of poverty, the precariousness and the lack of future of our generation.
Why did you stop mid-May? It was getting warm out, after all.
Sara Pistotnik: It was a practical and logistical decision. A lot of energy went into the logistics of keeping the camp alive. At some point, we decided that it wasn’t so important to keep it centralized. It was more important to disperse these topics into different spaces.
David Brown: By the end of November, the first debate took place about keeping the space open or not. By the time we closed it, it had served its purpose in terms of organizing, and the movement was clearly transforming into other forms that made the camp irrelevant.
What was the reaction of the authorities to the encampment?
David Brown: It was pretty okay. We didn’t face any resistance at any point in terms of being there. The location was right in front of the stock exchange, on the edge of the main street that cuts through the center of Ljubljana. There’s a lot of business around there: banks, offices, and then the stock exchange itself. There was always a police guard, but we had an ambiguous relationship with the police. Sometimes the police seemed to be protecting us because it’s a very visible location and at night drunks and troublemakers passed through. On the other hand, the police were also there so that we didn’t smash windows or get out of control. But there was never an attempt to close us down by force. Even after certain actions escalated our relationship with the authorities, they never attempted to intervene in the camp itself.
Sara Pistotnik: I think we also had a good political situation at that time. First there were the elections. The mayor’s party participated for the first time in the elections. Basically he won. He should have become prime minister, but he didn’t because he couldn’t form a government. Then he was reelected as mayor. We had a lot of public support at the beginning because we were raising important questions. It would have been problematic if the authorities stormed our encampment. There was a point when the mayor, after he was reelected, could have closed us down, but at that point we were already closing it ourselves. At the moment when 15O was identified as the people in front of the stock exchange, it was really the political moment to dissolve it and go into other spaces.
What other spaces?
Sara Pistotnik: 15O also uses the Social Center, some universities, public spaces, and so on. It remains a forum for discussion and organizing. It can do this wherever.
David Brown: The structure of the movement consisted of these daily common assemblies that dealt specifically with the logistics of the camp as well as reports on the activities and the workshops. The workshops have continued. For me, the movement became the workshops. The workshops found their own spaces through which to function and organize. A lot of them were at Rog, in public spaces, at the universities.
Did you have connections with other similar actions in the region? Zagreb? Belgrade?
Sara Pistotnik: There were sporadic manifestations. But there was no occupation that lasted as long as 15O. We made a common action with Occupy Trieste – a common clown army.
A clown army? You have to tell me about that!
Sara Pistotnik: They trained us to do this. It’s a way to raise issues through being an army of clowns.
You dressed as clowns.
Sara Pistotnik: More or less.
With big noses?
Sara Pistotnik: Noses and mustache.
I want more details about this clown army! Was it non-verbal?
David Brown: A couple guys in Trieste are professionally trained clowns and have been to clown school. They’re also political activists. They use the medium of clowning to raise political questions. They’ve done several actions in Trieste. It’s a kind of a joke on the army format. It’s very regimented. The clown general screams instructions. There’s a translator for the clown army that translates from Italian to Slovene. And we marched through the street as if we were an army. It was very verbal in that sense.
There were several specific actions like the book block. We also made fun of the daily newspaper content for being light and not really dealing with the hard issues. We would all gather with newspapers in our hands and read from them, making completely unintelligible voices — voice over voice over voice — representing how the media is jammed with all this useless information. And we used the books as shields. Whenever we came across symbols of authority — police, certain buildings — we held up the books to shield us. There was a lot of joy. People were laughing and dancing as we moved through the streets.
Sara Pistotnik: We have a good network in the region, with connections to local movements such as the Clown Army action. We also participated in Blockupy Frankfurt in May. This upgraded Occupy blocked the functioning of the financial center in Frankfurt and the European central bank. The event in Frankfurt was quite interesting because there was really a state of emergency. The authorities were so afraid that they closed down everything themselves. There were 30,000 people at the initial manifestation. But then we were basically prohibited from entering the city center. Many people were arrested during just a normal gathering. It was a complete suspension of democracy and freedom of assembly. Basically we couldn’t do anything because the repressive apparatus wouldn’t let us even get together. In the end, it was successful in showing this.
What lessons did you bring back to Ljubljana?
Sara Pistotnik: One of them is that there is a huge need to work at the European level because the austerity measures are happening throughout. You cannot do anything just on a national level any more. Also, there’s a huge question now about what to do after Occupy. That was last year’s method. Now there are different experiences coming out of the occupations. I don’t know if anyone is thinking about reoccupying anything.
Last spring in the United States there was supposed to be a big push to train 100,000 people in nonviolent resistance. A lot of trainings took place. But I don’t know what happened. That effort required organization and leaders, and some folks were not happy about who stepped in to take that leadership position. There is considerable disagreement about what the next steps should be. There was an expectation that there would be more people for the anniversary this fall, so that was disappointing. Beyond that, I really don’t know where the movement is.
David Brown: At least out of New York, there were a lot of initiatives that stayed after the occupation ended, particularly around student debt and housing. A really strong movement engaged on these topics produced a lot of interesting documents about how to resist debt collection and eviction, how to reoccupy your own home or open up new homes.
I don’t know if you’ve encountered this here but there’s a big class divide in the United States between those affected by foreclosures and evictions and activists with a more middle-class perspective or agenda.
Sara Pistotnik: Other problems have been bigger than this one. The Social Center is a place where so many different layers of society meet. I would guess that it’s a question of how you communicate and how open your agenda is. If you close the agenda by saying that this is just a student issue and no one else is part of it, if you pose it in a way that everyone will be a student forever with no life before or after, it will be a closed issue and maybe some other people producing knowledge in other institutes cannot be part of it.
We were really trying to be inclusive. We had a different organization than Wall Street. We had this methodology of democracy of direct action. We didn’t search for consensus among everyone who met at the General Assembly. The forum was open to new initiatives. Even if you came three months after the occupation and you had an idea for a workshop that would then develop into some campaign, you could propose it. As long as there were no strong ethical objections, you could proceed.
One of the reasons why that structure was avoided in the United States was because of a fear that the movement would be hijacked. At the very first Occupy meeting in NYC there were anarchists who wanted an open structure and there was International Answer, which is quite Leninist in its orientation: very top-down, very hierarchical, and very skilled in taking over organizations. They tried but failed to take over that initial gathering. Was there concern of hijacking here?
Sara Pistotnik: Of course you’re thinking about it and you’re scared of it. But on the other side, there’s the assembly as an everyday structure to which the campaigns and workshops report and where people also make suggestions for new initiatives. If you had a campaign on housing or the deinstitutionalization of people from mental institutions, then you had the autonomy to do that work, also because you had some experience dealing with this issue before. For us it would be unproductive to try to achieve consensus around these really specific social issues. And it would be a big shame to try to unify them into some common campaign.
We had agreement on some basic principles. We didn’t need consensus on where to put the toilet. That would be too exhausting. The problem with consensus is that it’s a nice idea but people don’t have the same power based on their position in society. Not all voices have the same weight. On questions like the mental institutions, you’d probably end up cutting out the most vulnerable people who have the least power in society. But it would be pretty magical to create a completely different environment inside the assembly to give them so much power that this vulnerable part of society would have an equal part.
David Brown: In some ways, the democracy of direct action was the way to overcome the possibility of hijacking. When you take into the account that a lot of people in the movement were being socialized politically for the first time and engaging for the first time with other people who had 10-15 years of experience, there’s a big difference in the positions those people would hold at the assembly. If you had a process of consensus, the really experienced groups would be able to take over the movement and turn the movement into a vehicle for their own agenda. With democracy of direct action, it’s impossible to do that. Whenever someone in the assembly started to pontificate, you had a mechanism for saying, “That’s great. Just organize the workshop. That’s where you can have the content discussion.” Everyone is empowered to work on the issues that are important to them and build consensus through that, rather than in two or three hour common assemblies where you have to build consensus on everything. Our common assemblies rarely lasted more than an hour. There was never a possibility to hijack it. Everyone had room to do their own initiative. It was just a question of how many people came to your workshop. That was more a definition of success than how good you were at presenting it at the assembly.
Sara Pistotnik: It was an experiment, but it was successful. Even if the encampment dissolved, still these workshops could survive in different spaces. We can bring these workshops together again, and we can make space for new workshops. Another point of democracy of direction action: whoever proposes it, does it. There’s no “we should do this or that.” There’s no useless conversation like that.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve been frustrated by that in activism in the United States. I don’t want to hear “it would be good if…” You either do it and people join you, or don’t do it!
David Brown: When you’re looking for consensus and you empower one body within the movement, like the common assembly, to legitimize actions or workshops, all you need is some small minority of voices that might want to be disruptive or critical or say “I don’t think that’s politically relevant” and then you can’t do anything. I was in Portland, Maine this summer. We met with Occupy Maine from the university. They were basically saying that the movement in Maine didn’t do anything. They had interesting discussions around various topics. But every time they had substantive debates about what to do, there were people who said, “That’s stupid. I don’t understand the point.” And they were shut down. But it went very smoothly here in Ljubljana because we had this mechanism of just go and do it.
Sara Pistotnik: It’s also a mechanism to determine the politically relevant topics. We didn’t have an upfront agenda about what is politically relevant and what we should work on.
There are often two different approaches to social movement activism. One is to create our own society and that’s where our focus is. The other is: we try to change society at large and make it look more like what we want it to look like. Those aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but do you have any examples of the second type, of the impact that social movements have had on the world outside?
Sara Pistotnik: There are some examples. Rog and Metelkova are also in the middle of the city for a purpose. They would be on the periphery if they wanted just to make a commune of self-contained people. Rog has definitely had an impact on wider society: on the question of the Erasure, which emerged within the movement and only later moved into the NGO sector, or the theme of workers from other parts of Yugoslavia.
Have there been changes in legislation?
Sara Pistotnik: There were minor changes. But as long as these workers are other-country nationals, as long as they need visas to work here, the situation won’t change. More important is the fact that these issues are now part of the public discourse. Slovenia has long had the image of a successful democratic country that wasn’t involved in the wars in this part of the world. But the movements challenged this image by showing that the transition was not so nice. And now the movements are bringing up the issue of young people not having any opportunities — no flats, jobs, pensions, and so on — all connected to the global capital flows, of course, but also connected to the transition. The movement did a lot to reveal the bad sides of the transition.
There was a proposal that got pretty far in 1990 to demilitarize Slovenia. Then the wars began. I’m curious whether that’s still on the agenda of some organizations here
Sara Pistotnik: I wouldn’t say that an anti-war movement exists. I would say that an anti-war movement is part of many campaigns. It’s not something you work directly on, but you strongly disagree with militarization or the international missions that Slovenia is part of, or the purchase of arms. It’s one of the non-negotiable parts of the movement. After the 1990s, when Slovenia was entering the EU, there wasn’t a strong anti-EU campaign, because that was considered too nationalistic, but there was a strong struggle against entering NATO.
Finally, in terms of the political situation here in Slovenia, do you see any prospects for social movements to influence these elections?
David Brown: It depends. Different parts of the movement have different ideas about how to engage with the political establishment in Slovenia. That’s probably true in Europe in general, and it’s a debate in the United States too. We had that debate with 15O as well because the first occupation was within a month of the election. Some parts of the movement have sought to build more formal political structures, so that a party, or engaging with a party, was a possibility. For a lot of people, this was not the central issue. The political establishment doesn’t have the guts or the relevance to really engage with the topics that are out there.
So, there’s a bit of cynicism about any candidate from any party, no matter how far left. This 15O movement was so interesting on the level of empowerment. For the first time maybe you weren’t working through representative structures but were working autonomously, engaging in resistance and building something on your own. And then to go into an election and say that you’re going to vote for this person? You’re back to this discourse of how much of your power are you willing to give away.
Sara Pistotnik: I think that we live in a time when it’s basically impossible to engage. This slogan “nobody represents us” is not a caprice. As long as the establishment is searching for solutions that rely on austerity and big decreases in the standard of living, it’s impossible to engage in this formal politics.
David Brown: The movement definitely raised big questions around debt. There’s a growing analysis across Europe that debt is really the mechanism of the crisis, the way that states and the EU and banks are imposing structural changes on society. This is the way in which we are all being disciplined — through debt. This was true of the political parties in the last elections and it’s true of the government now: they see cuts as the only way forward. No one was proposing any alternative. That was so disenfranchising. There was no reason to engage. The politicians were all just saying that they were going to take more away from you than you have now.
Sara Pistotnik: Nobody knows how to proceed because the standard mechanisms of political activity are impossible. We were never a movement that wanted to seize power. But now our analysis is that just being in dialogue with the state is not enough. Even by having a strong political program won’t mean that the cuts won’t be imposed on us. Establishing a political party, or supporting some candidate — even if we say that this is ethically what we want — wouldn’t necessarily be successful. What are the forms in which to organize now? It’s not political parties or communes or squats. We’re not talking about issues like anti-militarism or ecology or feminism or the Erased or migration but the basics of all of our lives. It’s a qualitatively different situation from even 10 years ago. The encampment was a mechanism for poking at society. But now the question is: how to organize it in a more continuous structure.
When you look into the near future and you assess the prospects for Slovenia, how do you rate those prospects on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being more pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
Sara Pistotnik: I would say it’s in the middle, around five. It depends on the level of organizing. But I wouldn’t be involved in things like this if I were completely pessimistic.
David Brown: We wouldn’t be sitting here if we had a one in mind. But it’s not realistic to give a 10 either. To see things change, not just in Slovenia but in Europe and society in general, it’s going to be a huge struggle, and it will depend on how many people get mobilized.
When you look back from 1989 until today, and everything that has changed or not changed, how would you evaluate that on a scale of one to 10, with one being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied.
Sara Pistotnik: The situation is definitely worse, because of the change in atmosphere, the feeling of fear, the disappointment, fear, frustration, the lack of perspective. It’s definitely around 3 or 4.
David Brown: I can’t speak about Slovenia because I didn’t grow up here. I grew up in Germany. I haven’t lived there in a while so I don’t know the context so well there at the moment. But if I were to answer this on a general level, I’d say 4 as well. Before I got more actively engaged, I would have had a more positive view. But once you unpack the financial crisis, especially at the micro level, and see how devastating it is, and you learn about the process of privatization and the impact that it has had, then you realize that it didn’t go in a good way at all. I’d say 4 because there hasn’t been a complete repression of alternatives. And you see that there is a lot of movement in some places, which has grown since 2008, and a lot of positive things have resulted from that.
Your own personal life: same scale, same time frame.
Sara Pistotnik: This is hard question. I would say it’s 7 or 8. It depends on the day. If I’m questioning my future, in comparison with the past, then there’s quite a lot of reasons not to be so optimistic. On the other hand, I don’t see my life as not being fulfilled or having potential. So, maybe even 9 in the future.
David Brown: I’d have to say something like 5.
Ljubljana, October 19, 2012
Interview with Sara Pistotnik (2008)
ON THE ERASED
According to the official numbers from the first press conference of the Ministry of Interior in 2002, there are 18,305 Erased in Slovenia. Altogether, around 29,000 people were erased. Approximately 10,000 left the country soon after the independence of Slovenia in 1991; 18,000 stayed. Since than, around 14,000 people have regained some status – citizenship, permanent or temporary. For about 4,000 Erased, we don’t know where they are. There are some indications that the number is much higher, but it is impossible to know. Also it’s necessary to look at the whole family. In some families, only one person was erased. But the whole family was affected.
We’ve been working for three years on a regular basis to find people without status. The official government statement that there are no Erased without status is not true.
Some people were deported. We have a document from 1992 that says for those people without valid documents, to “take them to the border and leave them there.” Many people lost jobs, apartments. They couldn’t afford to stay here. Some people asked for refugee status in Germany and other European countries. Some people wanted to come back but couldn’t. There are many still in Bosnia. One problem is that some children born in Slovenia are still not recognized as Bosnian citizens.
The goal of many of the Erased is to see that the people responsible for the Erasure are punished. They want an apology. But some want compensation.
When I was growing up, I did not think about what it meant to be Slovenian. I think of Slovenia as my homeland. It was much harder in the beginning of the 1990s. There was a lot of disapproval of southern people. It wasn’t just disapproval. There was a lot of despising of southern people. But the situation has calmed down. The war is over. Public opinion has changed, and people are not so nationalistic any longer.
Rog was occupied in March 2006. Many in the crew that occupied the Social Center Rog were dealing with the Erased question, some since 2003. Personally, I’ve been involved since 2005.
Rog had been a bicycle factory that was closed at the beginning of the transition and had sat empty for 15 years. Nobody bothered with it. Then various groups came together and decided to open Rog. We only planned to use it temporarily until the municipality decided what to do with it. We thought it was a shame that it was falling apart, that no one was using it. When there are good plans to turn it over to public use, then we will leave.
Rog is open to people who are engaged in cultural or political production, people who are inventive. The main structure here is the Rog Assembly. We are non-hierarchical. We are also trying to work on a new concept of the commons that goes beyond public and private.
At the beginning there were many of us. We had electricity for some of the time. Then came a year and half without electricity. Now we’re on generators. There are nine groups and some other individuals working here. The building is in really bad condition. It might not look nice now but it was really horrible back then. Remember, we were focusing on its temporary use. So people did not put so much energy and money into a place we were going to leave eventually anyway. It’s been particularly hard for artists. It’s hard for them to produce under these conditions. For instance, it’s hard to heat these big spaces in the main buildings with all the damaged windows.
The municipality decided at the beginning of next year to make a new complex, including a hotel for artists and a center for contemporary art here. There will be two skyscrapers with upscale flats and shops, a big garage underground, some other buildings, and a center for contemporary art. It’s not what we wanted – something for the common good. Only a small percentage of the center will be public, and the rest would be private. You see, this factory is from the beginning of last century. The city can’t tear it down because of historic preservation. They can’t tear it down but they also don’t want strange people living inside.
We think of Rog as inclusive. This last year we’ve been working mostly on the issue of migrant workers and asylum-seekers. Migrant workers are really exploited here. Their work permits force them to stay connected to employers. They can’t say anything. If they are thrown out of their job, they have to leave the country. They live in private workers’ dorms that are really crowded. They pay 150 euros per month for a bed.
So there are two sides to the city of Ljubljana. On the one side, you see the new investment and the successful new buildings in the city. On the other side, the work is being done by mostly migrant workers, coming mainly from Bosnia but also Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. They are working jobs that Slovenians don’t want to do, mostly construction, at 2.5 euros per hour. They put in long hours. They are here legally so they have certain rights, but practically they will never use these rights. They are slowly working on self-organization. That’s the difference between Rog and NGOs. Self-organization is very important to us, while NGOs are representing and speaking in the name of a group.