Dubravka Ugrešić: What Does Democracy Mean in
the 21st Century?
And What Might Take Its Place?
Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać
“They ate, they drank, behind they left nothing for us.”
–Roma fairy tale
The Slovenian pop group Zaklonišče prepeva [Air-Raid Shelter Singing] recorded the song “Samo da prođe demokratija” [“If Only Democracy Would Pass”]. Their video made the rounds in the post-Yugoslav countries on the internet and in social media when it came out in 2014. There have been several other videos like it over the last twenty years. The band wasn’t particularly compelled by originality, in fact not at all. Using trite language and images, they assault our flagging, benumbed memory. Everything in the video—the music, the words, the backdrop—is a belabored quotation. The empty industrial hall, the actors there as extras, the band striking poses straight off of old communist posters, their gazes suggesting an unwavering faith in the future, the singer with his Che Guevara beret. There’s an accordion player with an accordion, and three flags—blue, white, red—symbolizing the Yugoslav divorce, while the red star, of course, is nowhere to be seen. Everything in the video has an amateurish feel, and the lyrics are squeamishly thick with clichés.
I’ve come down from horse to mule, I plod along like a ragtag fool, no longer do I buy the fairy tales / I slave at two, three jobs a day, never an end to the bills to pay, how do old mothers ever survive / Our grandfathers fought in the war, many of them gave their lives, is this what we were fighting for? / They sent Krauts and King packing, they knew he was a hack, they toppled every single foe / If only democracy would pass, and straight to hell with the top dogs, dogs / If only democracy would pass, so we can live again like people. / The top dogs rake in the dough, play golf, drive Jaguars, on our backs sit the scum / There is only a handful of them but a whole pack of us, losers, let’s show them they are done.
While listening to the lead singer’s clarion voice, the older listener can’t believe that someone so young would be revisiting the spent language of social critique—the language of the 1970s student demonstrations, the peasant uprisings against greedy landowners and cruel tax collectors, the language of political criticism with a vocabulary that was central to the Partisan movement (their great-grandfathers!) (foes, Krauts, top dogs, etc.). Yet this pop-protest is aimed at the current transition phases that are still ongoing (although the Yugoslav divorce happened some twenty years ago!). One might easily misread the last line, “let’s show them they are done” as: “let’s show them we are done.” The most visually and semantically striking detail in the video is at the end: the inflatable Father Frost on the floor of the empty hall, deflated and trampled. The camera lingers on Father Frost as he gradually inflates and fills out. The video attracts post-Yugoslavs; its appeal lies in its precision, stripped of all affect, and its feel for the hopelessness of protest inherent in the very call to protest.
So here we are, we’ve broken through to the end, we’ve reached democracy’s nadir. The more protests there are, the less effective they become; the more channels there are for sending messages, the less the messages are heard. We are all denizens of Hyde Park, each of us with our right to the speaker’s corner. Political language has lost the impact of faith and conviction, it is emptied of meaning: people organize themselves by herd instinct, to the left and to the right, believing that thanks to the left wing or to the right wing they’ll keep their job, or find a job, or, maybe, retire. The language of political protest has lost its muscle, protesters come and go. Slogans, nudity, flowers in hair, women’s bared breasts, the living Jesus on the cross, self-immolation, the Hong Kong umbrellas—all of these flash through the papers and across screens and quickly sink away into darkness.
Maybe we should have listened, twenty years ago, to what the peasant women at the outdoor market were saying. The newly ensconced Croatian authorities in the early 1990s introduced many changes, among these a brief disruption to the daily life of Dolac—Zagreb’s central outdoor food market—by sending armed guards in special uniforms to patrol the marketplace. The peasants who came to the market to sell their wares—women from the villages near Zagreb, selling homemade cottage cheese, corn bread, and fresh eggs—did not appreciate the presence of the uniformed guards. When the boys in blue showed up, the women signaled to one another, “Girls, watch out, democracy is coming, time to go!”Political language has lost the impact of faith and conviction, it is emptied of meaning: people organize themselves by herd instinct, to the left and to the right.
More than twenty years have passed between the line “Girls, watch out, democracy is coming, time to go!” and the lyric “If only democracy would pass, so we can live again like people.” Twenty-five years have passed since the Berlin Wall came down. Will anyone, amid the euphoria of the celebrations, have the presence of mind to ask what has happened, lo these many years? Why would young people today be hoping for “democracy” to disappear so they could “live again like people”?!
Why does an old woman in Sarajevo light a candle for Tito every year on the anniversary of his death? It’s because she believes Tito emancipated women in Yugoslavia by allowing them to stop wearing the hijab. Today, the old woman’s great-granddaughter is back to wearing a hijab and disapproves of her great-grandmother’s “emancipated past.”
The institution of the church, which has drawn women back under its wing, is doing a bang-up job of subjugation, and has made itself the closest ally of the post-Yugoslav “democratorships,” the new states—busy producing a simulacrum of democracy. As an institution, the church is more efficient than the state: there are more hours in schools of catechism class than there are of computer science; there are more crosses on the walls of Croatian hospitals than there are supplies of hypodermics, bandages, and cotton batting. The hospitals suffer from a shortage of nurses, but not from a shortage of priests and nuns poised to hold vigil by the bedsides of the dying; thanks to the church’s pro-life propaganda a fifth public hospital in Croatia has now decided to deny abortion services. The church is the most totalitarian and efficient system of all: they take everything, and in return they sell the tepid water of consolation.
What are the democratic options available to retirees? Retirees cannot cover basic costs with their pensions, or, if they can, they end up supporting their unemployed children. What democratic options are available to Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Macedonians, and others, who have found themselves out of work in their fifties? Or what about the youngsters graduating from schools and universities every year and starting their professional lives? What democratic freedoms are available to the vast majority of people who do not have the resources to pay for attorneys, dentists, doctors, to school their children, or even to afford a roof over their heads? Democracy today is an umbrella term that encompasses many things: the praxis of merciless capitalist exploitation, the unfree media, media manipulation, the censorship of corporate capitalism, the production of lies, modern slavery . . . Meanwhile there are groups like a group in Split, calling itself the “Urban Right-Wing,” who use their democratic right to protest by putting up posters everywhere with the words: Death to Communism! Where is the Communism whose death they’re demanding? Where’s it hiding? In the salesrooms of Croatian IKEA?
There aren’t many animal species on Earth that devour their own kind. Rats, in this regard, are the masters: if they lose a food source, they eat their closest kin. So do people. If you’ve recently experienced people jostling you on the sidewalk, or snarling something nasty at you; or if someone walking by yanks the gold chain off your neck, or if people who used to be friends and acquaintances stop answering your emails; or if you can no longer count on the promises you’re given: the promise of the carpenter who said he’d come to repair your window, the promise of the gas man and the plumber, the promise of your hairdresser and pedicurist, anybody’s promise. If your neighbor’s ten-year-old kid spat in your face while the two of you were taking the elevator, don’t worry, this is no figment of your imagination, yes, it’s really happening, you aren’t paranoid, the ten-year-old kid did spit in your face.Democracy today is an umbrella term that encompasses many things: the praxis of merciless capitalist exploitation, the unfree media, media manipulation, the censorship of corporate capitalism, the production of lies, modern slavery.
But don’t take it to heart. Don’t take it personally. Because all this isn’t happening just to you, it’s happening to everyone, people have trouble talking about it, the humiliation is far too widespread, so why acknowledge the little slights, though, to be frank, they’re the ones that hurt the most. No, things are not yet horrible, telephones still work, your best friends have you over on Saturday to celebrate a birthday, the messages from your acquaintances still appear in your email, though it’s true that there aren’t as many as there used to be. They appear, when you provide the initiative, you exchange the requisite messages, and then you and the other side sink again into many months of silence, after which the feeble bell rings once more, only to go quiet forever . . .
Don’t take it personally: we’re at war, we have begun to annihilate each another, our supply of food and dignity have been cut off, we’re useless. No, it’s not that people are being worse to you in particular, this applies to everyone, and they just happened to stumble across you, and the crueler they are, the more unfriendly—the greater their own anxiety. If you think you’re sinking, don’t take it personally, the people who are preventing you from clinging to the life raft are only on it themselves briefly, because they are better at shoving away the wretches who are drowning, including you. But I tell you, don’t worry, soon enough they, too, will find themselves in the cold, dank water, someone else will push them overboard soon enough, unless they’re kept on board to serve as food.
So pay close attention, you’ve watched your share of Mad Maxes, you know what you need to do. The war is upon us, stock up your cellars, stow away some extra gasoline, you never know, a supply of matches and candles, shelves of canned food—these will come in handy when you need to trade, and you’ll keep yourself going with cunning. I tell you, the war is on, class against class, everyone against everyone, individuals against individuals, the signals still may be a challenge to decipher, but the war is here.
Didn’t your next-door neighbor elbow you in the ribs just yesterday in passing? Crazy, you thought, as you weighed whether to confront them. Soon you’ll have to, because there will be no other option, you’ll barricade yourself in, drag home sandbags, we’re at war, it’s just that we haven’t quite faced this yet, perhaps because we were on the lookout for clear signs of the apocalypse, but there is no apocalypse, only the post-apocalypse; this apocalypse is like diabetes, you don’t even know when you have it. Brace yourselves, because soon you’ll have to confront the faces of those who used to be on your side: the illiterate, brutal, armed to the teeth, the raging, wild, hungry, yes, the cannibals, the people who stayed alive themselves by relying on one skill alone—the skill of survival. And if you make it through this, if we make it through this, then maybe one day we’ll live again like people.
From The Age of Skin by Dubravka Ugrešić, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac. Used with the permission of Open Letter. Copyright © 2020 by Dubravka Ugrešić.