The Paradigm of Fragility of the Workers’ Issue in (post-) Socialist Yugoslavia

"Elementary School of Capitalism" - On Želimir Žilnik's latest film actions

Branka Ćurčić

Želimir Žilnik’s long-term preoccupation with marginal social groups has culminated in his latest film about the protests of the workers-shareholders in the Zrenjanin factories, "Šinvoz" and BEK. Furthermore, the director’s continuing discourse on the issue of meaning and being, giving a "voice" to various marginal groups through a documentary approach, have met with yet another obstacle: the absolute "silence" of the workers as political protagonists in contemporary Serbian society, where there is moreover the consensus that the attempts to defend the basic workers’ rights and the attempts to (self-)organise are something alien, an unheard-of notion. Not even the most remote echoes of the idea of workers’ self-management from the Yugoslav socialist era are something to be discussed today, and this potential political and emancipative heritage is being relativized together with the overall (totalitarian) history of this area, which has resulted in the institutionalising (and not so much an invasion) of neoliberal capitalism and a complete economisation of the society as an ultimate value. Still, it is necessary to analyse the concept of socialist self-management in greater detail, because, actually the marginal subjectivities on the margins of a society of the time can be interpreted as a symptom of contradiction of the socialist self-management and its transitional processes (1). How "marginal" were the workers in the socialist Yugoslavia?

The Zrenjanin Case

Up to now, the process of privatisation (as the only viable option toward attaining a degree of "normality") in Serbia, under the wing of the corrupt mechanism state-private entrepreneurs-private property has only exhibited its blind faith in the necessity of "catching up" with the West and the "values" of neoliberal capitalism. In that sense, the most acute problems are the absolute rule of privatisation in the process of property transformation, the open denial of shares owned by workers and the denial of the role of the public good (2), and the drastic limiting of the workers’ rights to their share in production and to work as such. A further step has been taken in ensuring that no form of self-management with property belonging to the workers (as shareholders) can have any positive effect on Serbian society today. On the contrary, the idea of such an enterprise is considered abnormal, unrealistic; it is seen as refraining from the given direction of "normalisation" of the society and its "logical" historical development. (Intentional) bankruptcies of factories, unprotected workers and their mass layoffs have become the most outstanding contemporary Serbian reality. Years of struggle against the alliance of the authorities and the primacy of private property, first engaged by the workers of "Jugoremedija" and then by workers in the factory "Šinvoz" and BEK in Zrenjanin, has led to organising workers aiming to annul court decisions on privatisation and attempts to establish independent bodies that will renew the production in the factories and establish the principles of their management. Although they were often called Stalinists and although they were constantly given the attributes of criminals in their attempts, the workers of these factories in Zrenjanin created a double excess in contemporary Serbian reality: they dared to self-organise, demanding their right to work and they have created an interruption in the "smooth" process of absolute privatisation "as the ultimate realisation of freedom". Still, activities of this marginalised social group have their dark side, as well. In a number of cases they resulted in death and suicide due to additional pressures workers had to face.

Do the marginalised layers of post-communist societies, which, according to the words of Želimir Žilnik, represent the core and the majority of those populations, actually speak of their permanent "marginal position" as a symptom of ambiguity of the workers’ self-management of the socialist era?

The Idea and Reality of Yugoslav Socialist Self-management

After the rejection of Stalin’s politics in 1948, an "alternative" model of socialist development was established in Yugoslavia, coined "socialist self-management". In that sense "the Yugoslav transition toward communism failed" (3), or was "cancelled", although one of the ideas was that self-management economically and socially represented a basis for the "extinction of the state" as a transitional phase toward the communist society (4). The official ideology of socialist self-management proclaimed a "rejection" of both Stalinism and calculated socialism on the one hand and of capitalism on the other. However, such an official ideology ultimately incorporated both ideologies: it was built on a conflict between work and capital, i.e. between the workers’ self-management and capital and ownership that have been turned into public property (as well as the market economy in traces). The contradiction inherent in Yugoslav self-management was also evidenced in the ratio between the party and workers’ control – while the workers’ control existed on lower levels of the production process, it was to a great extent subordinated by the decisions of the ruling party. The contradiction belies the gap between proclaimed and attained socialism. More often than not, through various forms of artistic and social criticism (the unrest of ’68), what was demanded was the "harmonisation of the normative – democratic and self-managerial – and the factual order, based on the monopoly of the authority of the only legal political party (5). Although the workers’ councils were sovereign, they still represented a "lower" degree of sovereignty than the party did. A certain "freedom" of the workers’ councils was seen in the equal participation in the workers’ councils where discussions were held on the principles of direct democracy regarding the distribution of profit amongst the workers, further planning and investing of the means. One could say that the sovereignty of the workers’ councils was "fragmented" in the sense that it was taking part in very limited fields of decision-making. The areas in which the workers had no sovereignty focused solely on technical issues, on technology in the working process, where "experts" in specific fields were given responsibilities. The bureaucratisation of the system attained completion with technocracy.

In 1965, a more liberal market economy began to develop in former Yugoslavia through a series economic reforms. In the years that followed a complete process of liberalisation of the country took place, with the reorganisation of the Union of Communists, state security and the radical reduction of federal centralism. With these economic reforms, a greater autonomy was attained which was seen as a greater independence in the process of production, investments, and the distribution of income, leading to market relations within the socialist society. "The basic organisation of united work" had the freedom to realise monetary income and to run business in an entrepreneurial way, even in a "corporate" manner… Utilisation of the means for production publicly owned had to undergo a complex mediation of different (self-managerial) interests and social obligation… Although the state was still the biggest entrepreneur, the extensive and all-encompassing system of the mass social and political organisations… ensured the involvement of most people who were in a way the shareholders of that public enterprise (6). In many of these elements one can see the similarity of socialist self-management with some of the political and economic features of contemporary neoliberal capitalism.

The antagonism that was seen in different degrees of decision-making resulted in the so-called "pseudo-participation" of workers in the given process. Often, such an event is called a "psychological and consultative participation" (L. Tomasetta), where the role of the worker in the process of preparing the decisions can be substantial, but very limited when these decisions are actually made and realised. That was the way to "humanise" the working process. "So, ‘council work’, in fact, is more an issue of the technological and psychological manipulation of the ‘human factor’ than giving any rights to workers..." (7). The foreman does not impose decisions but creates a framework for discussion with workers, which does not result in true participation but in creating the sensation of participation.

The thing that is common for the conditions of work in socialist self-management and contemporary neoliberal capitalism is the absence of the "monologue" character of labour. Namely, in the times of self-management socialism, a sensation of participation in decision-making was created through discussions with workers, i.e. pseudo-participation (a form of instrumentalised participation). The contradiction in this situation became a norm of a post-Fordist production. The production means in post-Fordism consists of communication techniques and procedures. Cooperation is accentuated to a great extent as a necessary means of post-Fordist production, where the workers are expected to, apart from realising their given tasks, incorporate improvements and intensify interpersonal cooperation based on communication. Joint work and communication and linguistic communication become essential, even when it is about production in, for example, the automobile industry. "The 'monologue' character of labour disappears: the relationship with others is something basic and not merely a supplement".(8) The vertical hierarchy and instrumentalisation of communication in the production process of self-management socialism was "levelled" and made horizontal (yet it is still powerfully instrumentalised) by post-Fordist principles of production. Informality and attempts at improvising communication have become key features in the general running of production today.


In labour theories from the beginning of the previous century, a strike is seen as a way to mobilise the revolutionary powers of the proletariat engendering in them the noblest, deepest and most moving sentiments that they possess. (Georges Sorel). A general strike assembles workers and through the attained proximity it provides the maximum intensity – one acquires that intuition that speech cannot give in the clearest possible way. It is seen as a necessary, not isolated and long-term political act. The strike of the workers in socialist Yugoslavia was often seen as a symptom of the imperfection of self-management, simultaneously, at the same time it was seen as its accelerator and potential solution to contradictions that existed in society. It was considered as a political act that arises as an opposition toward one structure in one’s own organisation. Also, a strike is seen as a consequence of market economy in socialist society, which treated the labour force like merchandise and contributed to the solidifying of the value of the workforce like any other merchandise. Above all, a strike is a symptom of contradiction of self-management, because the prevailing official politics could never tolerate it as a method of realising the interest through resolving contradictions, because in that case that very politics would be obliged to take the responsibility upon itself for all the consequences that would emerge from such an attitude. For this reason, among others, a strike was often characterised as illegal, under the pretence that its character was not institutional. Maybe this is one of the reasons why after the first strike in Trbovlje in 1958, the "father" of the workers’ self-management, Edvard Kardelj, said that tanks should be sent against workers.(9)

Today, the cited workers' strikes in Serbia are taking place as a result of dissatisfaction and refusal to accept the neoliberal social development which is solely directed towards privatisation of a public good, to the free market and the undefined and reduced role of the state in such processes. Even following the positive example set by the "Jugoremedija" factory in Zrenjanin and a currently successful workers' protest, in an atmosphere in which the state lost the role of a mediator of social conflict and public opinion became fragmented, the terms of workmanship and workers’ protest today will have to be redefined and the models of future self-organisation that are not uniformed will have to be found.

The Antagonism of the Workers’ Self-management in Žilnik's Films

Many of Žilnik films have been dedicated to the position of workers engaged in socialist self-management, for the most part through the individual stories of workers, their (un)employment, the emergence of Yugoslavs as a foreign workforce in western countries, the lumpenproletariat, the detection of social inequalities and antagonisms and representation of marginalised and endangered "bottom strata of society". Žilnik himself says that he uses his documentary-featured approach to simply note "how the working people survive". Still, Žilnik’s films detect the symptoms of contradiction of self-management socialism... whether it be his film Vera and Eržika about textile workers in former Yugoslavia; the films The Unemployed, The Way Steel Was Tempered or his latest film on the workers' struggle in the Zrenjanin factories, all dealing directly with workers, or... Black Film, Inventur, the TV series Hot Paychecks and his Kenedi Trilogy, in which Žilnik talks about the contradictions of self-management socialism and of the working process today. With these films he performs a double service: as a "documentarist" and envoy of workers’ issues, but also as a rigorous critic of the ambivalent trends in (post-)Yugoslav society, which have left the deepest effects on marginalised subjects. He believes that social events are not biological facts, they incorporate antagonistic social interests, which does not mean that he makes any social antagonism relative through his work, but that the conflicting ambiance is actually the "natural" ambiance of his work.

The sequences of Želimir Žilnik’s latest and unfinished work on the protests of workers in Zrenjanin factories "Šinvoz" and "BEK" have been screened only once in Zrenjanin to an audience of workers and other spectators and have moreover been used as a basis for further discussion on the self-reflections and problems facing the participants of the protest. "With summary statements made by workers, surrounded by the bleak scenes of ghoulishly vacant, cold factories and offices, their faces can only be seen in close-up, along with those who do not speak, and yet each and every one of them conveys the powerfully dramatic simultaneous existence of an individual and of an entire group. In a simple, coarse language they speak of their reasons for their mutiny and decision to defend their factories, the basis of the existence of their families and foremost their workers’ and shareholders’ rights. (10) And this is exactly where Žilnik proposes his own reasons to make a new film, and which "spring from his empathy with the un-subjugated victims of the 'transition' into capitalism, which is, as it goes to show, less human than the former era when he himself was exposed to different forms of repression". (11) In the sense of repression that goes deeper into past, Žilnik believes that the campaign against films made in the early 70s was one of major most extensive and well-planned ideological operations in Yugoslavia after the war. The contradiction of the ideology also permeated the campaign, resorting to the argument that self-management in cinematography was being neglected and that the market orientation of the Yugoslav cinematography had become its own goal. Therefore, the basic underlying concept of socialist self-management was used for the criticism of unwanted phenomena. Once again the contradictions of that period have in the time of neoliberal capitalism in Serbia been multiply "flattened", the ambivalent layers are "glued together" into the only possible yellow brick road toward the "elevated" normalisation as ultimate freedom.

The Last "Transition"

The transition process is seen as fateful in post-socialist countries. Following the fall of the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe, post-socialist countries have not entered directly into the world of developed capitalism and Western democracy but have first had to be submerged in the process of transition until they reach final state deemed as normalcy, i.e. a universal norm of a historical development in general.(12) According to Boris Buden, the process of transition is seen as a process of normalisation. Further on, Buden believes that this process also embraces a logic according to which things, before they become better – normal, capitalist, democratic etc., first have to become worse in comparison to the previous situation, concretely with the status of actual socialism.

Apart from the myth or narrative regarding such a transition, this area is dominated by some others and Buden describes them as follows: "A developed capitalist West presented a historical basis of neoliberal hegemony; it was a geographic cultural location where it is seen in its authentic and undeveloped form, while in the East (in post-communist Europe, for example), this hegemony is allegedly still trying to settle in, to throw the old to the junk pile of world history and replace it with the new. The neoliberal hegemony does not operate by the previous forms of colonial power, conquering the wild; the primary territories are still not integrated into a historical period. One could say that the West itself represents nothing but a historical ruin – debris of the state of well-being, ideological and political Keynesianism, a collective solidarity typical of industrial modernism, social democracies, struggles among the institutions of working class, its unions and political movements etc. Is not Eastern Europe today, quite the contrary, a place where the neoliberal idea finds its "authentic", its "natural" political environment: waves of privatisation on the level of a tsunami, where that which belonged to the people becomes owned by a few new tycoons literally overnight and without a significant resistance? In fact, the East is a place where one finds a blind faith in the basic principles of neoliberal ideology, in the almightiness of the private initiative, the self-regulating power of the market, in the "deregulation" elixir, to cut a long story short, to an uninhibited market economy as a final realisation of freedom. It is exactly here, where its victims are enthusiastically exposed to it, that neoliberalism is really at home". (13) He also adds that "the difference between the West and the (post-communist) East today is not the difference between a highly developed neoliberal capitalism and a still not developed, still not neoliberal post-socialism, but between the influential neoliberalism and its outside. This difference has been completely integrated into neoliberal hegemony. A so-called unequal development is the modus operandi of this hegemony. (14) What is more, Buden says that the "East" and Eastern Europe are actually a construction of the European Union, attached to an ideology that appears as a cornerstone, indicating the still-existing divisions between the West and the East, and "grading" the "East" as unsatisfactory, compelling it to develop further to catch up with the West.

Instead of a conclusion...

The contradiction indicates a lack of agreement between certain events or actions and, within that lack, there is a potential for practices of divergence and separation, which occur during the establishment of such agreements and which evince the greatest potential for their change even before they come to being. The contradiction that was built into the foundations of Yugoslav socialist self-management left cracks, fissures and niches in which it was possible to practice divergence. Today, in this place and time, neoliberalism has been "existing as a parasite in the existing infrastructures… between the existing models, utilising and deepening the existing differences" (15) and with its totality it completely fills in and takes up the entire space. With that, the re-articulation of the interest affecting the general population (or the workers), in opposition to the dominant interests of the few, becomes more difficult but all the more necessary to define, so as to create a possible reserve from the "blind faith in the principles of neoliberal ideology."

Branka Ćurčić is program editor in the New Media ( from Novi Sad, Serbia, since 2002. She graduated Fine Art and Theory of Art and Media (MA) in Novi Sad and Belgrade. In the, she is the editor of publishing project ( and she participates in organizing lectures, conferences, workshops and exhibitions. She also takes part in several international research projects and writes for several magazines. Ćurčić is interested in critical approaches to new media culture, new relations in contemporary culture and labor, contemporary art practices and social realm.


(1) Gal Kirn, When I Will be White and Pale, Pages Magazine, 2008

(2) Zagorka Golubović, Destiny of the Working Class in Present Serbia (Sudbina radničke klase u današnjoj Srbiji), Republika, Numbers. 424 – 425, 2008. Belgrade

(3) Ibid

(4) Dušan Grlja, Self-management as an economical and political system, from the catalogue "Case of the Student Cultural Centre"(Samoupravljanje kao ekonomski i politički sistem, iz kataloga "Slučaj Studentskog kulturnog centra 1970-ih godina"), Kolektiv Prelom, 2008

(5) Nebojša Popov, "Belgrade June" 1968 ("Beogradski jun" 1968. godine.) Republika, Belgrade, Numbrs. 424 – 425, 2008

(6) Dušan Grlja, Self-management as an economical and political system, from the catalogue "Case of the Student Cultural Centre" (Samoupravljanje kao ekonomski i politički sistem, iz kataloga "Slučaj Studentskog kulturnog centra 1970-ih godina"),Kolektiv Prelom, 2008

(7) Rudi Supek, Participation, workers’ control and self-management (Participacija, radnička kontrola i samoupravljanje), Naprijed, Zagreb, 1974

(8) Paolo Virno, Grammar of the Multitude (Gramatika mnoštva), Jesenjski i Turk, Zagreb, 2004

(9) From the DVD material on Želimira Žilnik’s work, "For an Idea – Against the Status Quo",, Playground Production, Novi Sad, 2009

(10) Slavko Golić, Workers Testing Their and Others’ Power (Radnici iskušavaju svoju i tuđu moć), Republika, Belgrade, Numbers 426 – 427, 2008

(11) Ibid

(12) Boris Buden, Post-Yugoslav State of Criticism of Institutions: Introduction, On Criticism as a Countercultural Interpretation (Postjugoslovensko stanje kritike institucija: Uvod, O kritici kao kontrakulturnom prevođenju),

(13) Boris Buden, Commentary to Branka Ćurčić’s text: Autonomous Spaces of Deregulation and Criticism: Is Cooperation with Neoliberal Art Institutions Possible? (Komentar na tekst Branke Ćurčić: Autonomni prostori deregulacije i kritike: Da li je saradnja sa neoliberalnim umetničkim institucijama moguća?),

(14) Ibid

(15) Petar Milat, The Least and the Most – general notes, Operation: City Handbook for Life in a Neoliberal Reality (Najmanje i najviše – uvodne napomene, Operacija: Grad, Priručnik za život u neoliberalnoj stvarnosti), Multimedijalni institut, Platfroma 9.81, itd., Zagreb, 2008