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Report from our Summer School “Between (post)Socialism and (neo)Liberalism”, at the fridge & Haspel in Sofia

This July in Sofia, an event entitled Eastern Europe: Between (post)Socialism and (neo)Liberalism. Ideologies, practices, resistances was hosted by New Left Perspectives and Social Center Haspel and supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. The goal of the event was to continue the transnational collaboration between radical activists and academics within Eastern Europe that was started during two previous summer schools in 2011 and 2012 in Budapest.
First event in 2011 entitled (Neo)liberalization of Socialism and the Crises of Capital took place at Central European University in Budapest and was organized by Mary Taylor, Johanna Bockman, Csilla Kalocsai and Judit Bodnar. It included lectures by G.M. Tamas, David Harvey, Ivan Szelenyi and others. Some of the initial participants, urged by the intellectually and politically stimulating experience, reassembled in July 2012, attracting new people, once again in Budapest, for a 5-day conference entitled Mapping Neoliberalism and Its Countermovements in the Former Second World. The main organizers this time were Agnes Gagyi, Csaba Jelinek and Rossen Djagalov. You can read an excellent report of Rossen Djagalov on what went on in 2012 as well as more on the event’s prehistory here.
The success of both previous convergences inspired participants to turn these meetings into an annual tradition. They decided to organize a third meeting, this time in Sofia, hosted by New Left Perspectives, and to reach out to new participants and organizations, particularly from the countries of ex-Yugoslavia. Recognizing the critical engagement of Rossen Djagalov with the dangers of liberal anti-populism, organizers decided to make it as a focal point. However, the topic of the summer school was extended to fit the interests of the group diversity in order to include issues related to (neo)liberalization of (post)socialism and urban studies/movements. Among the central organizing figures of the 2013 event were Mary Taylor and the New Left Perspectives coordinators Madlen Nikolova and Martin Petrov. The gathering took place at the Fridge & Haspel, a small venue in Sofia that is collectively run by members of Social center Haspel and New Left Perspectives, as well as by a local organization of artists named the Fridge.
The event kicked off with a short introduction by Mary Taylor on the morning of the 20th of July. It was followed by panel on The Rise of the Entrepreneurial City in the East After 1989: Neoliberalization, Gentrification and Resistances with presentations by Daniel Šarić, Márton Czirfusz and Themis Pellas. Šarić spoke about right to the city mobilizations in Zagreb, Czirfusz explicated the dynamics of the neoliberalization in Budapest and Pellas unpacked the possibilities for building up cross-national autonomous movements in the region, basing his argument on the experiences of urban mobilizations in Greece. The second panel was entitled Struggles Over the Right to Housing in the Neoliberal City in the East and comprised of three presentations. The first was the one by Anže Zadel, who traced the evolution of struggles over housing in the Balkans from socialist Yugoslavia to post-socialism. It was followed by an intervention by Mariya Ivancheva and Stefan Krastev, who comparated squatting practices in Venezuela and Bulgaria in relation to housing issues. The final talk was by Csaba Jelinek who spoke on the non-liberal answers to the housing problems in Hungary. The presentations were followed by a long Urban theory workshop, organized by Mary Taylor, Anže Zadel and Themis Pellas. There the potentialities between critical theoretical reflection and urban mobilizations were elaborated and discussed.
In the evening there was a round table discussion on the current protest mobilization in Bulgaria that has been taking place along with the summer school. The participants debated in length the ambivalent and complex meaning of the current protest wave in Bulgaria and the role that the tiny radical left can play in such protests that are somewhere in between a new color “revolution” and a potential for a critique of neoliberal capitalism. Another interesting point of the debate was focused on contrasting and comparing the summer protests in Bulgaria with the mobilization from February 2013 that brought down the right wing government.
The presentations and workshops on the 21st and the 22nd of July 2013 were focused on the region’s political economy of the transition to capitalism and the role of the current economic crisis in Eastern Europe. The 21st of July started with a panel on (Neo)liberalization of (Post)socialism and the European Debt Crisis in the East. Zsuzsi Posfai elaborated on the specificities of the process of privatization of utilities in Hungary. She was followed by Mariglen Demiri, who spoke about the Neoliberalisation of Post-Socialism in Macedonia. Sandra Martinsone presented her detailed economic research on the Latvian case. Andreja Živković put the initial liberalization of socialism and its eventual collapse within a global perspective vis-a-vis relation to international debt. Luka Mesec unpacked the “two speeds Europe” from the perspective of critical international political economy, elaborating on the divergent developmental models that lie in the European regional inequalities. Olexiy Viedrov talked about the shifting interconnections between Cyprus’ role as a Tax Haven, the Ukrainian political elite and its oligarchs. The final presentation was of Ajkuna Hoppe who spoke about the liberalization of Kosovo’s energy sector, its coal industry and its position in the region in the light of the recent protest wave there related to electricity price hikes.
The afternoon was dedicated to a workshop, organized by Rossen Djagalov, that aimed to start the production of a map of the post-socialist left. The vibrancy of the left organizations in the regions sparked a lively discussion on the importance of such a mapping project and a working group was set to finish up the process in the coming months.
In the evening a round table under the title of  Socialism, Postsocialism, Neoliberalism – Interconnections in CEE was organized with the participation of Don Kalb, Volodymyr Ishchenko and Florin Poenaru. (the talk can be downloaded/listened online here)
The third day of our convergence started with a panel on the Neoliberalization of Higher Education and the New Production of Knowledge. Razvan Dumitru brought in the debate intriguing anthropological insights on the understanding of the Moldovan formation of political subjectivities in the repertoires of contention there. It was followed by presentations by Daryna Korkach and Bartosz Ślosarski on the student protests against the neoliberal educational reforms in Ukraine (Korkach) and in Poland (Ślosarski). The second panel was entitled Resisting Neoliberal Austerity and Capitalism in Eastern Europe. It was started by Vladimir Unkovski-Korica who spoke about post-socialist working class formation in Serbia. Then Anej Korsika presented the new Slovenian Initiative for Democratic Socialism, that emerged out of the recent uprising there. Volodymyr Ishchenko proposed a typology of the radical left strategies in the context of the new mobilizations in Eastern Europe.
In the afternoon Mariya Ivancheva organized a workshop on the Recent Wave of Protests in East-Central Europe in Comparison, aiming to map the recent wave of contestation of the status quo in the region.
The 23rd of July was perhaps the longest day of the meeting and it was dedicated to the 2012 proposition to articulate an elaborate critique of liberal anti-populism. The morning started with an in-depth analysis on the role of “populism” in othering and enclosure of people power by Mary Taylor in the context of late 20th century global culturalization of the political and UNESCO’s politics of heritage. Her presentation was followed by an extremely original reflection on the strategies of the left by Andrea Jovanović and Aleksandar Stojanović. The trust of their argument was grounded on concrete social movements and not abstract values, showing the complexities of the radical left’s engagement with both liberal and conservative social mobilizations.
Alexandra Novozhenova talked about the de-politicization of socialist culture after socialism in privately owned art spaces. Martin Marinos proposed a framework within which we can understand the links between the rise of the far right and the liberal mainstream media. He was followed by a short talk by Dimitra Kofti. She explicated the dynamics of the usage of the concept of “populism” in Greece, a notion that escaped its more traditional liberal dwelling and has infested even the left, where the accusation of “populism” is sometimes mobilized to accuse one another and hence limiting its prospects for radical transformation. Rossen Djagalov presented on another stream of his larger project to articulate a detailed critique of liberal attempts to limit the possibilities of social change in the post-socialist world, namely on the liberal anti-utopianism. Such anti-utopianism, he showed, is used to argue that so called totalitarianism is a direct consequence of utopian thinking. He was followed by Zhivka Valiavicharska who critiqued post-1989 liberal historiography of socialism in Bulgaria that lumps up all its dynamic under the rubric of “totalitarianism”, unable to grasp the production of diverse set of ideas and practices. She spoke on her research into the Bulgarian tradition of Marxist Humanist though from the 1970s and the 1980s. Georgi Medarov and Jana Tsoneva tried to show the tensions between liberal and democratic practices, such as in the post-2001 use of the concept of “populism” as elitist liberal strategy to curtail democratic power, as well as within the 2013 protest movements. Ilya Budraytskis spoke about the evolution of Russian liberalisms in the context of the shift towards liberal capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The last presentation, of that long day of talks, was by Stanimir Panayotov, who gave a detailed analysis of the figure of the “gay male” within Bulgarian mainstream political discourses, such as the role of the “gay mafia” construction in rationalization of new inequalities.
After the tiring day of presentations and discussions some of the participants joined the evening protest in Sofia that ended with clashes with the police in front of Parliament, overflowing theory and practice, continuing informal intense political discussions on situation in Eastern Europe in the midst of the riots. For participant’s reflection on the ambivalence of the protests that were happening during the summer school check out Unpacking the “Bulgarian Spring” by Mary Taylor  here as well as Performing public spaces in the Sofia protests by Czirfusz Marton here.
The last day of this annual convergence started with presenting the results of the Fruška Gora Summer school that was held earlier in July in Serbia and organized by the Center of Politics of Emancipation. This was done by Miloš Jadžić and Vladimir Simović from Center of Politics of Emancipation (Serbia). It was followed by two workshops. Firstly one on Neoliberalizing Socialism – A Rearrangement of a Moral Universe organized by Agnes Gagyi & Razvan Dumitru. At the final meeting all participants were discussed how should they proceed in future, trying to define potential host and topics for the year 2014.

 Georgi Medarov
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