Civil society, social change, and anthropology: A conversation with Maple Razsa about ‘Bastards of Utopia’

In the early 1990’s, as the Cold War ended, Eastern Bloc countries began untethering themselves from Soviet influence, discarding decades of socialism and communism as they did so.

Colby College associate professor of Global Studies Maple Razsa witnessed such an untethering and that witnessing opens up his book Bastards of Utopia: Living Radical Politics after Socialism. Published by Indiana University Press as part of the Framing the Global book series, the volume, and its companion film, considers what it means to be a leftist social activist after socialism.

As Razsa tells Framing’s Rosemary Pennington, the book is also concerned with how anthropology can contribute to a ‘reimagining of politics.’

Rosemary Pennington: You open Bastards of Utopia on a personal note — explaining your early introduction to the region. Why take that approach in an ethnography?

Maple Razsa: Well, yes, the book begins with my experience as a high school exchange student during the last year of Yugoslavia’s existence as a unified and socialist state. This serves to situate this account in historical context, including the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia, nominally in the name of ethno-nationalist statehood for the constituent nations that comprised that multinational state.

But just as important, my reasons for opting to go to Yugoslavia, namely my own naïve hopes that I would find a political alternative to a market economy, set up the central question of the book, namely: What does it mean to be a leftist after state socialism? It is that question that my collaborators, who came of age during this tumultuous period, have struggled not just to answer, but also to live in their everyday lives and to embody in their remarkable activist projects.

RP: Why should someone who isn’t specifically focused in social movements or politics pick up this book?

MR: Well, at its most fundamental, this book is about the struggle to try to live life in accordance with your ethical beliefs, and how, through this, to fulfill what you see as your potentiality as a person. In this sense it is about fundamental questions of how we try to make life meaningful, even worth living.

I follow how my collaborators — especially the four activists whose experiences are the heart of the book and the companion film — commit themselves to such a task. But they do so, of course, in a world that is profoundly hostile to their beliefs — beliefs in equality, autonomy, mutual aid, and direct democracy — making this a difficult and contradictory struggle. As their lives make clear, however, this struggle is not an individual one but is pursued in common with others. Nor is it only difficult; it brings great meaning, even, at times, joy. So the book documents these new ways of being political, inventive new ways of reimagining how life might be organized.

RP: Civil society is a much-debated concept — is there a way to think of civil society that engages with both local and global realities?

MR: Yes, civil society poses a number of challenges, especially if we want to understand both its local and global dimensions. What’s interesting is that many scholars and policymakers use civil society in a normative way, as an assumed social good to be promoted. I’ve found that the term actually takes on quite different meanings at different times, and among different actors over the past 25 years, undermining any sense that we can assume its meaning.

In Bastards of Utopia I trace how conflicts within the activist community highlight some of these different meanings and why they are so important. For example, there were generational conflicts during my fieldwork between activists who were old enough to be involved in the resistance to the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution and activists who became active subsequently, during alterglobalization movement events across Europe and beyond.

For the older activists, the notion of civil society was held in high esteem, associated with principled resistance to nationalism and the ethnic definition of public life, associated with independence from the state and military. For the younger generation, however, who participated in and were radicalized by the dramatic global justice mobilizations of the 2000s, civil society had come to be associated with technocratic professionalism rather than voluntary energy, polite protest rather than direct action, and dependence on dubious sources of funding rather than self-organization. We could think of my collaborators more disruptive, rebellious, and unruly modes of politics as constituting an uncivil society!

RP: Why produce both a film and a book? How do they work separately? How do they work together?

MR: Well, it’s hard for me to imagine this book without the documentary — text and video have been interwoven through my entire research process. I used the video to transform my methods, to embed my fieldwork in activist struggles, and to represent my research findings in more broadly accessible ways, opening a number of productive reciprocities between scholarship and political engagement. Video played a crucial role in my incorporation into daily life and became central to my methodology, as I shot extensive video ‘field notes.’

More than a mnemonic device, as images are sometimes reductively understood in anthropology, video profoundly influenced my perception and thinking. Working in video encouraged me to be attentive to forms of observation I might have otherwise neglected. As Lucien Taylor has pointed out, anthropologists often listen for the discursive — for our informants’ words — to the detriment of our other senses.

But in the end, video is as important to the representation of my fieldwork as written ethnography. Drawing on two hundred hours of video shot over seven years, I co-directed and edited Bastards of Utopia (Razsa and Velez 2010), about everyday life and radical politics in Zagreb. I also created an online interactive documentary with 80 scenes taken from this archive. I’ve embedded references to these online clips throughout the printed book and these videos are embedded within the iBook version. This combination breaks new ground for multimedia ethnography and makes my research more accessible and compelling for students and wider publics.

RP: You suggest that in order to move our understanding of political change forward we must move beyond a politics of denouncing. Why is that important and how do we, as scholars, activists, and every day people do that?

MR: Well, the need for a more affirmative anthropology became clearer in the course of showing early versions of the film to various publics. Viewers would say, ‘OK, I see all the things they are against — nationalism, corporations, the police, private property. But what are they for?’ I came to understand, that this question highlighted genuine frustration with the limits of purely oppositional politics. I realized I needed to be more explicit about the implicit alternatives embedded in my informants’ lives and actions than I was in the lightly narrated and largely observational film. I therefore moved beyond what James Ferguson has called a politics of ‘the antis,’ a politics which only denounces.

If anthropologists are to be relevant during the ongoing crises we find ourselves within — the lingering economic crisis, as well as the broader crisis of the political imaginary, evident in our inability to imagine that any other social order is possible — we must be prepared to make an ethnographic contribution to the reimagining of politics. We must affirm other social and political possibilities. In some sense, such an affirmative turn would be a return to anthropology at its best: The exploration of ways of being human that are at odds with what appears natural and inevitable from the vantage point of the present, from the point of view of our own contemporary ‘common sense.’

So, without romanticizing my collaborators’ lives, without ignoring the compromises and contradictions involved in trying to live according to their beliefs, I also was careful to make explicit the models for a very different society, for very different ways of living, that are embedded in how they made decisions through direct democracy, organized themselves in nonhierarchical ways, and developed new relationships with those around them based on a commitment to mutual aid, even how they opened themselves to becoming new people through encounters with lives and experiences very different than their own.

Doing justice to these alternative practices, and the political possibilities they open — captured in the common activist slogan that ‘another world is possible’ — guided my turn to this more affirmative approach.


You can get your own copy of Bastards of Utopia from Indiana University Press.

You can further explore Razsa’s work on the interactive documentary site.

You can follow us on Twitter: @FramingGlobal.