These interviews took place in Slovenia and were published in Counterpunch on November 13, 2017.
John Summers: Ali Žerdin, 52, is one of Slovenia’s best known and well-traveled journalists. He edits Sobotna priloga, the Saturday supplement of the major daily newspaper Delo. Mr. Žerdin, the signature of political economy in Slovenia has changed: self-management is gone; success and failure are now matters for individuals to bear; ownership of business enterprise is more concentrated; unemployment fluctuates between seven and nine percent; few native Slovenian companies remain, the major exception being KRKA pharmaceuticals; and a structural problem in housing looms. Slovenians live in homes they own (thanks to privatization) but there are not enough private savings accounts or high incomes to enable the next generation to purchase their own residences. Even if all this is true, privatization seems to have prevailed. A post-socialist republic was born in 1992 and carries on. Are Slovenians happier now, more creative, freer? Has post-socialist society been a success?
Ali Žerdin: In 1992, the privatization concept was adopted (but key privatization processes did not start until 1995). The privatization law, as adopted in 1992, was a compromise between two models. The first model, proposed by deputy prime minister Jože Mencinger, would assure the conversion of the political capital of the technocratic part of nomenklatura into economic capital. The second model, proposed by Jeffrey Sachs, gave much more power to the political class. Former socially owned companies were to become state owned, and a special “development fund” was to be responsible for corporate governance. Shares of this fund were to be delivered among all citizens, but the government would—in the name of all owners—appoint the board of directors of the development fund.
A compromise made possible that directors and workers became owners of smaller portion of shares of specific companies. The state took another 20 per cent of shares through two government-controlled funds (pension fund and compensation fund). A special private investment fund was the third element of new ownership structure.
As a result, in 1998, nearly 1.5 million people in Slovenia were owners of at least one stock. After 2000, a process of concentration started, and today less than 250.000 people are owners of shares or other financial assets.
The key point of privatization was dispersion and gradualism. So, Slovenia avoided shock therapies that were typical for other ex-communist states. The key problem of privatization was lack of knowledge of abuse of the securities market, regulation of competition, etc. Some institutions responsible for the securities market and the protection of competition existed, but they were not strong enough.
In terms of the new economic elite, around 2000 power was divided among “old boys” (the technocratic fraction of nomenklatura), the new financial elite (special investment funds), the managers appointed by the government (directors of pension and compensation fund, directors of two state-owned banks and insurance company, directors of railways, telecom, electricity companies, infrastructure companies, highway company…). However, a significant portion of shares was owned by workers, ordinary people.
I would say that privatization was well regulated. But the process of concentration of shares was much less regulated, and it was much less fair. Key irregularities occurred between 2000 and 2008 when so-called tycoons started to concentrate shares of companies. They went to the bank, they abused their good (political?) contacts with management of banks, they received unsecured loans. And after 2008, they were insolvent. The national economy collapsed after 2008.
So—in the second half of the nineties we were talking about success story. But second circle of transformation was much more traumatic. Due to the fact that a significant part of the national economy was (and still is) controlled by the government (infrastructure, biggest bank, biggest insurance company, telecom…) the shift of political power in 2004 represented an enormous shock for business. Namely, a leftist liberal-democratic coalition was replaced by a right-wing coalition. In the network of interlocked directors, nearly all central directors were replaced by newcomers. The majority of newcomers were politically loyal to new ruling coalition. Some of “old” directors decided for very risky management buy-outs (MBO) to avoid attack of right-wing ruling coalition. Consequences of some of the MBO attempts were catastrophic.
In 2008, after the next shift of political power, a left-wing ruling coalition took power. It was led by social democrats (some of them were members of the reformist wing of the Communist Party). After 2008, it became obvious that some very powerful cores existed inside of the state-owned economy, in particular an energy companies’ network with an ambition to build new coal-fired power plant became very active and harmful. These powerful cores were not controlled by the government. Substantial parts of government were controlled by (state owned!) energy companies.
Are we happier? Before the referendum on independence, one of our politicians said that life would be harder after independence but that we will feel much better. Basically, that was true. We live much better today—but there exists deep discontent, due to lack of fair play, lack of rule of law, and much bigger social differences.
JS: What have been the distinctive cultural forms to emerge in the last 25 years? I understand that Slovenia is not large enough to give birth to a full-scale culture industry. But has literature, painting, or art changed, in substance or style, coincident with privatization? During my interviews here, I have been unable to discern whether there is now an independent intelligentsia, structurally autonomous from the state and the universities, surviving by virtue of being supported by their audiences. As I understand, the government subsidizes literature, and, more and more, the young are going into the universities rather than the unemployment department. Where is the cultural nerve center of Slovenia?
AŽ: Very vibrant cultural forms first appeared at the end of seventies and at the beginning of the eighties. I’m talking about punk movement and all cultural innovations directly or indirectly associated with punk (Laibach, Neue Slowenische Kunst, Irwin). Changes in art forms announced changes in social structure. Probably my observation is biased because I was part of this story. I started to work as journalist at Student Radio, punk’n’roll, jazz, and world-music radio. After 1990, I have not seen any substantial cultural innovation. I expected that something interesting could happen in the autonomous cultural center Metelkova (former military barracks squatted in 1992 by young activists, artists), but it didn’t happen.
The independent intelligentsia was much stronger and much more independent in the eighties. It was embedded into a progressive, civic society network. But Slavoj Žižek and his circle decided for an international career, and some intellectuals became part of new political elite. It’s a paradox, but there did exist a strong infrastructure for independent intellectual activity 30 years ago in the weekly newsmagazine Mladina and some student newspapers and semi-scientific reviews (Problemi, Nova revija, Revija 2000, Časopis za kritiko znanosti.) The present infrastructure is much more fragile. The budget for science has been kidnapped by the national institutes in public and private universities. There is not much space for outsiders. There are no “enlightened capitalists” who would sponsor such intellectual production.
Academic intellectuals are occupied with bureaucratic collecting of points. My supplement is part of the problem. I do not have budget to pay for articles produced by independent intellectuals. So, the supplement is a forum of dialogue, but participation in this public debate is not paid. In the past, when circulations were much higher, payment was not a problem. Today, we are not able to assure the survival of independent intellectuals. Yes, the government subsidizes literature. But there are only few authors able to survive only from fees for their novels. Some authors are also editors, some are also lecturers. Subsidies are low.
There are some young (less than 40) film directors, but I wouldn’t say that they form a cultural nerve center. On one side, there exists pretty good cultural infrastructure—Cankar Cultural center in Ljubljana, Kino Šiška, an independent cultural center. The autonomous cultural center Metelkova is an alternative or underground cultural center. In the eighties, cultural production was flourishing despite a lack of venues, but new venues did not result in more vibrant culture. Somehow, the authoritarian regime had some positive impacts on creativity.
JS: Can you say more about your supplement?
AŽ: Delo, my newspaper, was founded something like fifty years ago; it is considered a significant place for public debate. I have no idea what will happen in the future because we have a new owner who is completely without experience in publishing. He is a manufacturer of some very special parts for the car industry, and decided to buy a newspaper because of influence, not for profit. The chief editor is a PR officer.
JS: Working for whom?
AŽ: He used to work for the owner. Now he works at the newspaper.
JS: When did this happen?
AŽ: In January 2016. The results are devastating for the newspaper—not in my part, because I do not allow him to interfere in my job. But if we are speaking about the daily paper, then the results are devastating.
JS: Because the political line has shifted? Because there is now pressure to exclude certain stories? Because of a decline in quality?
AŽ: First, it is a matter of professionalism. Second, we are without an editorial policy. There is an idea to protect the interests of the owner. But this idea was never elaborated; it was never said that we are here to protect the interests of the owner. But it is like that. Still, the lack of professionalism is the key problem.
JS: And it is manifested how?
AŽ: It is manifested in a way that we do not know what is the key event of the day. In today’s copy of the newspaper, we have some business man sitting, and around him is a picture of some other business people, without any substance. So page one is a disaster. Usually, we do not even have a good photo. Photographers are not told what to do. But this guy from public relations who became chief editor heard somewhere that photos are significant; so he decided them to make bigger.
JS: In the U.S., we have examples of the same thing happening, the most egregious of which is in Las Vegas, where the newspaper (Las Vegas Review-Journal) was respected until it was bought by a casino magnate named Sheldon Adelson. He installed as his chief editor one of his many employees who know nothing about journalism; it has been devastating for newsroom morale.
AŽ: Sometimes I get depressed. I decided to establish a museum of the press. Here are some examples of front pages. I am desperate, so I collect old newspapers.
John Summers: Aleksandra Kanjuo-Mrčela is Professor of Economic Sociology at the University of Ljubljana (one of Slovenia’s four public universities) and the President of the Slovene Sociological Association. Hi, how are you?
Aleksandra Kanjuo-Mrčela: Many very stupid things are coming from America. And we are taking them!
JS: Like privatization.
AKM: I was really very naïve. We used to have self-management. We used to have not state ownership, but social ownership. People had autonomy in enterprises, meaning that real decision-making was made by managers in companies, and those managers were in a way patriarchs, responsible to the workers. We had something much closer to workers’ ownership than any other form. And I thought we would use this opportunity to convert our factories, our businesses, into worker-owned businesses.
JS: Self-management operated at every level, including at a major pharmaceutical company like KRKC?
AKM: Yes, everywhere. The only thing workers could not do was to sell the company. Of course, managers had much more power than ordinary workers, but we had a lot of forms of participatory decision-making—and we lost everything.
JS: What role did labor unions play in this system?
AKM: The trade unions were weak. Their logic was totally different.
JS: Because the unions represent only the workers, whereas the self-management councils represent the enterprise per se?
AKM: Yes. We had both, and several different kinds of systems of self-management. What we had was something in between trade unions and workers’ ownership; workers were not able to sell the companies. But our system was much less centralized than any other country in the world. That was our potential, which gave me a naïve hope that during our transition we would convert something that was psychological ownership already into formal ownership rights.
JS: In the structure of the self-management system, how autonomous was finance? How much control did the collective have over the finances of their enterprise?
AKM: You must know that the managers were closely connected to the political leadership of the country.
JS: And to the banks.
AKM: Yes, of course. At the same time, the managers were not directed by them. KRKA was very autonomous. KRKA was internationally recognized as a good pharmaceutical company. The success of the factory was their success. It was not like in state-owned companies, in which all the profits went to the government to redistribute.
JS: There were no shareholders.
AKM: We had no word for shareholders at that time.
JS: So, privatization meant the loss of democratic control?
AKM: Yes. And lots of potential was squandered. I went to the factories to speak to some workers. I tried to give them the idea that they should buy their companies. They were given certificates and, with them, the pre-right to buy their companies as insiders. So they had the opportunity. Yet most of them said, ‘why, the company is already ours?’ All financial decisions had gone through self-managed budgets, and they always had to approve the decisions of the managers. For example, at KRKA, the workers had to approve the proposals to redistribute profits into research and development. They re-invested what they earned in the future development of their companies. They felt that the companies were theirs. But in the end, they cashed in their certificates. People in KRKA were very loyal to their company, which was very successful. They had the opportunity to purchase shares, and at the beginning, some did. But in the end, they sold their shares.
JS: To whom?
AKM: To managers, to other people. At least KRKA is still domestically owned, in a combination of owners and shareholders. But other companies were sold to foreigners. I think it is only a matter of time before KRKA, one of the last Slovenian held companies, is sold.
JS: To whom? A European conglomerate?
AKM: Yes. The other big pharmaceutical company was Lek, and it was a clear example of how the same level of success of the business could lead companies to different directions. Lek was sold to Santoz. Profits are going somewhere else.
JS: The psychological aspect is interesting. It reminds me, in a very different context, of native Americans to whom it was put that they should sell their land. They replied by saying at once that we don’t own it and that it is already ours. Transforming something held in common into a commodity is a psychological process as well as an economic one.
AKM: And when you do that, then people begin to treat it as a commodity. Before, they felt “this is ours.” Now they felt “this is mine.” This financialization of the individual accompanied privatization. We got this urge to be competitive and sell before others sold. There were really devoted managers, at KRKA for example, who tried to keep ownership within Slovenia. Of course, they were guarding their own influence as well as protecting Slovenian interests, but doing so in a good combination. Other managers tricked employees and organized their ownership in order to buy shares and concentrate ownership power.
JS: The organization of the university: how does it figure in the transformation?
AKM: It has not changed. Our university is still public. We have four public universities. We are fighting for money, and a lot of our funds are coming from European Union, and we are fighting for research money. But still, the majority of funding comes from the state, and college is still free. We still don’t charge, up to doctoral studies, but even there, it is heavily subsidized.
JS: In some countries that have undergone privatization, social psychologists have taken note of the emergence of collective mental health problems, such as mass depression. Has Slovenia been afflicted with any such new forms of cognitive dissonance or emotional dysregulation coinciding with the transformation?
AKM: We didn’t directly measure the connection. But what I do know is that stress and depression and psychological problems are on the rise, as well as the use of anti-depressives in Slovenia. It is a sign of lowering standards and a reduction in autonomy. During socialism, we often told ourselves that we were a fake, that we were not really self-managed. But now we actually, factually do not have self-management. There is no longer even a formal framework for self-management. That is so depressing! There is no real chance that we will ever go back.
JS: Why not?
AKM: In that time, we were close to understanding the mechanism of leveraged buy-out. We we were closing to understanding that people who were working and producing capital should be eligible to use their experience as collateral to buy their companies. Now we are ages away from that understanding. Now we all understand that Slovenians need money to buy an enterprise, and there is no way that people can, individually, do it. Neo-liberalism won.
JS: Do you call this process neoliberalism?
AKM: Yes, although the word is over-used word now.
JS: Has the family structure and its social dynamics, such as marriage, also changed, coincident with privatization?
AKM: Maybe it we had been more of a collectivist society, we would have been more successful in privatizing in the right way.
JS: You mean maybe you were right that collectivism was weaker, more fragile, more of an illusion all along?
AKM: Yes, definitely. But when you are not in power and do not have enough knowledge to use in the situation…some people were really smart in using the situation. At that time, between 1990 and 1993, the government wanted advisors from abroad, because we were creating a new capitalism. We invited Jeffrey Sachs to help us. He was for shock therapy. In fact, there were two streams of economists in Slovenia at that time. The old school was headed by Professor Jože Mencinger, who wanted incremental change, using worker buy-outs and investing in the psychological ownership. Then there were the other, younger economists, the neoliberals, who wanted shock therapy, who wanted Sachs to help them change the system and introduce a real capitalist economy. They were fed up with the old system. They taught that we were not successful enough, that we were not rich enough, that we were not Western enough. I thought that when we went to change the system, we wanted more economic freedom along with increased political freedom. Everything happened at the same time in Slovenia. We got economic transition, we got political transition—the introduction of a multi-party system—and we got independence from former Yugoslavia. It was a time of big, big changes.
In 1992, we got a mixture, a compromise between old and new economists. (Sociologists were not listened to at all.) We got this combination of mass privatization (giving certificates to all citizens, forming a stock exchange—with funds to develop financial markets—private individual checking accounts at banks). At the same time, insiders had the opportunity to use their certificates to buy their companies on preferential terms. That was the law. In the first round of privatization, most of the people did use their certificates to purchase shares in their companies. But after that, neoliberalism grew stronger along with the younger generation of economists, and the whole mentality changed. In the second round of privatization, ownership in shares concentrated in the hands of people who are now in jail for fraud. I talked with some of the managers and tried to convince them to organize their workers’ ownership, to do ESOPS, some sort of structure to hold ownership of the shares. I was completely unsuccessful. Workers saw me as an academic, and not even an economist, and as someone who was trying to politicize their lives. And from some of those who are now in jail, I saw in their eyes that they thought I was such a naïve person, that there was such an opportunity for them to make a lot of money, and here I was trying to sell them nice stories about workers’ ownership.
JS: What was Jeffrey Sach’s role?
AKM: His role was bad. I hated him. We were warned about him. He was selling recipes in an environment he didn’t have the first idea about. He was so irresponsible. He destroyed the opportunities of our people to live a better life. He left us, he left the Polish people, too, in disaster, and went to Africa. He’s awful.
JS: A group of economists invited him?
AKM: Yes, he helped them. They formed their political power upon him. It was the prerogative of neoliberalism, not humanism.
JS: You don’t believe that privatization was a collective choice, but that it was snuck in as an image of the future that was impossible to risk, because all the richer countries had supposedly also made this same choice?
AKM: Yes, we bought the American dream.
JS: In transitions from one mode of work to another, we often see an expropriation of social intelligence, a disruption in the generational transmission of skills and crafts in the labor process. Has there been a disruption in such social intelligence?
AKM: Most managers were not equipped to navigate a totally new economic environment and to plan for the future, and many companies simply collapsed. Those that were bought by foreign owners quickly closed down. The management of the small percentage of companies that survived was wise enough not to destroy the organizational knowledge.
JS: Did poverty increase or decrease?
AKM: Poverty increased only a little, because we managed to maintain enough of the socialist ethos. The numbers themselves are not so very bad, but we are using all our savings and buffers now. And when those funds are gone, the new generation will have nothing. For example, right now 85 percent of Slovenians live in their own apartments; they own their apartments.
JS: Because ownership was granted 25 years ago with privatization?
AKM: Yes. Now, because wages are decreasing, they are slowly selling them. The next generation will not be in a situation to use any form of ownership in the future. Using saving from before, without having made investments to replace the savings, is a big problem.
JS: Basic necessities, like heat, water, electricity, medical insurance, where do they fall in this situation? Who pays for your health insurance?
AKM: People who are regularly employed—and the majority of people are still regularly employed—and the quality of employment is still not so bad, as compared with our neighbors—have their insurance through their employer. Our starting position was really the best in former Yugoslavia, and former Yugoslavia was in a better starting position that most other Eastern European countries. We were well developed, with high labor and social standards. So if you are regularly employed, then your health insurance is paid by both your salary and your employer. More and more people, however, are not regularly employed—meaning, a full-time salary with open-ended commitments—and this is especially true for younger people. The future is not so bright for them. But people don’t talk about these things, people have internalized this neo-liberal philosophy, and they really do believe that, if they are unsuccessful, then it is their own fault. Younger people are more like this than older people. There is a fraction of the younger generation who are reading Marx again, which is good. But still, this is a very tiny fraction.
JS: What has happened to rates of political participation?
AKM: We have referenda on everything, and usually they are won by the political right, because their voters are more disciplined, and their leaders often initiate them. It is hard to get people to come out and vote against new propositions. The best that happens is they defeat the proposition, and nobody wins. That gets old quickly.
JS: The development of referendum as a political tactic is interesting. In a way, the conservatives are calling the bluff of those who want democracy. But the referendum enables the conservative forces to isolate one part of the voting process and to treat it as a marketing campaign, at which they tend to be very good. Is there any sentiment here for the kind of nationalist populism that has roiled the United States and Britain?
AKM: Conservative sentiment in Slovenia is not the same. It is nationalistic, religious, and anti-migrant, anti-feminist, and anti-gay. But on the 1990 referendum to join the European Union, we had the highest majority of all the countries. We were not divided.
JS: It was a matter of national survival.
AKM: I think many people voted yes because people felt that we belong to Europe, that we were already Europeans—and that we are not Balkan. Slovenia and Croatia are really very preoccupied with the danger of being seen as Balkan. In 1991, I was in London, and I heard our ambassador to Britain answer a question from a professor about Slovenia’s position on the Balkans. Our ambassador said, “we have nothing to do with the Balkans.”
JS: The transition from Yugoslavia was much smoother here than it was for the other republics.
AKM: Yes, because the Yugoslav army did not have a lot of Serbians living in Slovenia. Bosnia and Croatia were enough of the battlefield.
JS: Have there been any large-scale, visible, collective social protests since independence? Have you had people in the streets?
AKM: Against measures to reduce social welfare, yes, against attacks on labor rights, as well. There was a big one around 2012.
JS: Led by young people?
AKM: Yes, but there were also older generations. It did not take place only in Lujbjana, but also in other cities, which was quite surprising. But, unfortunately, not much changed. And some changes were just postponed.
JS: From idealist to cynic?
AKM: Ja, ja.
JS: What is the relationship between the Bolgona reforms of higher education and privatization?
AKM: The logic of entrepreneurialism is the same: the idea that you can do everything as a good enterprise, with corporate techniques of measurement.
JS: So, the intention is to subjugate the university and its systems of autonomy to the new kind of political economy brought about by privatization?
AKM: Yes. It is very hard, because I am very close to some of the people who run the university, and I know that it is hard to find a good balance. The rector of the university, a friend, knows what should be done. At the same time, he himself is ranked, along with the university, by American corporate standards. He has to meet expectations. Otherwise, our university will not be respected in the eyes of other universities in the international community, and our students will obtain diplomas that lose value. He wants to do the best for the students. And he cannot jeopardize the position and labor opportunities of the students. Everything goes together in the same wrong direction.
John Summers: Slavko Gaber, 59, joined the new government of Slovenia in May 1992 as Minister of Education and remained in this key position for 10 years, leading the invention and implementation of the new republic’s sweeping curricular reforms. One of his more popular innovation awarded all school-children the right to three floating holidays per academic year. They are still referred to “Gaber days.” Mr. Gaber, the historic national identity of Slovenia looks northward to Austria and Germany.
Slavko Gaber: Yes, we are the crossroads of West and East, that is our perception.
JS: Is Slovenia a Balkan country?
SG: For the majority, no.
JS: The identity crisis that has damaged your southern neighbors was solved long ago.
SG: Yes, we have escaped the fissures that were much more dramatic even in Croatia, not to speak of Bosnia. Luckily, our nationalists were never as strong as theirs.
JS: Let’s talk about higher education, in particular the system of measurement and assessment. Did it exist before the Bologna reforms?
SG: It already existed, but actually, if I reflect on what has happened, there is this odd tendency whereby the more a process resists measurement, the more we try to measure it.
JS: Where is this tendency coming from?
SG: It is coming from the West. It goes with the crisis of the capitalist type of production, which is losing ground in terms of the question: where can we still make huge profits? That is why they invited higher education into this quality assurance system. Now all the measurements are more detailed. Reaching full professorship today is much more demanding than it was fifty years ago,
JS: The introduction of new layers of social competition has had the effect of shrinking the horizon of scholarly imagination?
JS: And some form of this tendency appeared at the beginning of your time in the new government?
SG: Yes, this was one of the issues: are we going to privatize education? There were ideas that we were supposed to do it. My response was, no. We would maintain a solid level of the welfare state that included access to education. Public education remains strong here.
JS: Were the advisors who came here suggesting that you privatize education?
SG: Yes, some of them. Officials from the International Monetary Fund came into my office three times. And they didn’t believe that I didn’t want money. They said, but you have very ambitious programs. You will need money.
JS: They wanted to make loans?
SG: Yes. And I said, “no, thank you.” And luckily for me, it was also the Prime Minister’s firm position that we were going to take loans only when and to the degree that we need them. We would do as much as possible on our own. That meant our reforms would take three years, as opposed to one year with foreign money. But that was how we survived.
JS: Slovenia was already well developed, industrially, with a strong education system, in 1992. How did your position come about?
SG: The Prime Minister invited me to a meeting one day, and said look, “I see that you have a very active group of opponents of the current system. I have decided to offer to you and your group the chance to come and implement your ideas.” I was 34. That same day, I went back to my circle and said, here is an interesting proposal. Are we going to engage or not? After three hours of discussion, we decided, yes. In the last half-hour of discussion, we considered this meant our hands would be dirty. The next day, I met with the Prime Minister and accepted. We knew that this reform could not be out of our textbooks, that we would have to make a number of compromises. We might have to go for the second or third best solution. We had already taken the liberty of conceptualizing legislation in the majority of educational fields. But I traveled around the country, discussing reforms with students and parents in order to reach a basic agreement in our nation about the way forward. (I was young then, I had energy.) People didn’t want to hear that all they had done in education over the previous thirty years was crap. I said, okay, no rush. But we are now running inside competitive Western economies. We will get nothing from them, don’t have illusions. But we will survive. This was the philosophy of the cabinet. And with the exception of two members of my original group of 20—both of whom left after the first three months—my original cohort survived all the battles of those years.
JS: Did you have any foreign models to which you looked?
SG: Yes. Finland, Scotland, Denmark, and, to a degree, France.
JS: What did they share in common, from your perspective?
SG: They were good! I wanted to collect all their experts from these countries to come and help us adapt their ideas to Slovenia.
JS: Nothing from the United States.
SG: No, not really. You were too far away, culturally. My idea was Europe, but not the corporatist, Austrian and German type of education. We then believed—and, in this respect, it is completely pro-American—that liberty allowed people to breath and to decide what they wanted from their lives. Corporatism was strong here, due to socialism. We had been strongly against bureaucracy but not against proto-totalitarian elements inside the nation, inside the relations that we had with one another.
JS: Did the cultural function of education take a new form with the birth of Slovenia, then? For example, at one point in American history, schooling was devised to make citizens. Then it changed in order to make workers and capitalists for a new political economy. These tensions are still with us, and sometimes they find expression in culture wars over textbooks. How did you handle such tensions? You had to determine a new curriculum. That must have been difficult.
SG: Religious schooling was a very small minority in Slovenia. After independence, the Catholic Church wanted to put priests into the public schools. It was a huge battle. I said, never, you are not going to enter. None of the churches will be there in the classrooms, nor will any of the political parties. We legislated this in the 1991 Constitution. The church takes care of the souls, and the state is there for the well-being of the citizen. We received 70 percent support for this position that ruled out a new ideology, once Marxism was gone. This was one of the flashpoints. Another one was: how far are we going to instrumentalize education? This is still going on. Business interests wanted us to adopt a completely vocational approach. This was then an issue that spoke to the large question of what kind of a country do we want to be?
JS: But what was the cultural function of schooling? To produce a new Slovenian identity?
SG: To educate, basically. Knowledge is power, as stated by Francis Bacon, was our motto, and this is still the prevalent conception in a number of respects. One, yes, power in terms of profession and economy. But power also in terms of securing our autonomy, equipping our citizens with the power to take care of ourselves.
JS: This is the thinking behind offering instruction in German, Italian, and English in the public schools?
SG: Yes, we are aware that we are a tiny nation, and without foreign language capacities, we would have to stay at home and watch TV. More than 80 percent of upper-school students learn at least one foreign language.
JS: Earlier today, you mentioned to me that when you were attacked in your reform program, they called you a “pragmatist.”
SG: Well, we were strong enough politically to defend this approach. As Minister, I did not interfere to dictate the content of particular fields A group of 500 experts worked toward changes in the curricula for three years. We twice invited all the teachers in the country to comment. Each of them received a proposal for the new curriculum on the table. They suggested changes. This is how we got educational reform to work.
JS: You achieved a consensus through a participatory process?
JS: Are you able to identify how the curriculum changed substantively in connection with the political change from socialism to post-socialism?
SG: Yes. Before, there was a subject that was upper-secondary obligatory: Marxism and self-management, which was the basic ideology. This went away. This change took place even before I became Minister. We broadened the curriculum to feature philosophy, sociology, civic culture, and psychoanalysis. Previously, they were not part of the approved curriculum.
JS: You must have been in a great position both to identify and to replace the governing myths of Slovenia. All societies need secular education, and alongside it, collective myths to hold them together. Often, those myths are expressed in monuments and statues. We are fighting over some them now in the United States. Did you have such conflicts as you attempted to transition to a new society?
SG: We experienced a civil war during the Second World War. My uncle was one of the commanders in the partisan movement. So, there is a strong tradition of pride that we resisted Nazism. Thousands of people died, you know. The Catholic Church collaborated. The Communist Party came out of the Second War War as the strongest and best organized force. They also did horrible things. We saw independence [in 1990] as a natural culmination of the same tradition of resistance. We defended ourselves against the German army back then, and we decided to govern ourselves, against the Communists, in 1990. I am in favor of acknowledging the lies we faced.
JS: Did the new textbooks recognize the atrocities in the history?
JS: How long did it take to get the black marks of Slovenia’s history into the textbooks? Certainly, it didn’t happen right away.
SG: Why not? The process that we launched helped us decide. It took us several years to change the curriculum, but the experts we gathered were instructed to propose at least three examples of curricula from the Western world, in combination with the question: Who are we? Historians quarreled for almost a decade. It is still not solved, of course.
JS: Is free expression considered a right in Slovenia?
SG: Yes. It is basically a European Constitution. We have 90 percent of the German Constitution in our own.
JS: What’s the 10 percent that is left out?
SG: I don’t know. There is a strong pro-German element in Slovenia. And Germany’s Constitution survived Nazism, you know. So, it must be good.
JS: Slovenia seems to be a largely prosperous, stable, confident, small republic.
SG: Yeah. But no thanks to your one-time Secretary of State, James Baker. He came here and told us to our face: You will never survive. Stay with Milošević was Baker’s idea. Stay in Yugoslavia. We wanted more freedom.
JS: You received no help from the United States?
SG: Not when we needed it. We were confronting both the United States and United Kingdom; their foreign secretary was also against us. The Germans were our friends. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Germany’s foreign minister at the time, was our friend, and he remains a hero here. Why? His Germany was the first important foreign country to acknowledge our independence. I was there, watching our flag raised, when we were accepted into UNESCO. I was our representative. It was very emotional for me. We voted on the same day, on the same ballot, both to leave Yugoslavia and enter the European Union: June 25, 1991.
John Summers: Luka Lukic, 34, is a journalist and investigative reporter, focusing on exploitation and corruption in state–owned enterprise. He works for Radiotelevizija Slovenija (a.k.a. National RTV), the only public broadcasting organization in Slovenia operating both radio and television stations. In America, the businessman is the heroic archetype. Who are the heroes in Slovenia? Who are the official men and women to emulate? Professors, journalists, politicians, businessmen, singers, poets, novelists, painters? Who are they?
Luka Lukic: We are adapting to the American archetype of the businessman. Realistically, anyone who works in the field of culture is broke, more or less. Either he or she must work full-time at something else, or he or she is financed by the state, and that somehow reflects in the work, because the work is basically ordered up. I think now there are a lot of small businesses, startups, these are the people who are portrayed as role models.
LL: Yes, exactly.
JS: We have a lot of innovation districts but not a lot of innovation.
LL: Basically, we have everything America has—only twenty years later. So, now we are in the late 1990s. It’s globalization.
JS: Are your entrepreneurs concentrated in tech?
LL: Some in tech, some in other fields. For example, a few years ago, we had a couple of economists who started their own burger joint. They were portrayed, ideologically, as examples of persons who finished their degrees, could not get a job, yet still they could succeed. There was a meta-narration behind it.
JS: A glorification.
LL: Yes. Burgers did not exist in Slovenia apart from McDonald’s, and now they came to us with this idea of only Slovenian meat, only Slovenian vegetables, the happy cows, and so on.
JS: You probably have craft breweries now.
LL: Oh yes, it’s like “the high school teacher who has a sideline making his own beer.” I try to avoid reading about such stories. I mean, starting a burger joint is really not that much of a success. Make it work for two decades—then I’m interested in what you have to say. But then it’s not innovation, if it is 20 years old.
JS: And there is not enough of a public to support independent magazines and newspapers?
LL: No. Slovenia is a small market bordered by a language spoken by only two million people. There were attempts in the direction of approaching journalism in a deeper way, and they all failed miserably, more or less.
JS: So where does public debate happen?
LL: That’s the million-dollar question. Social media, basically. Conflicts and controversies are not reported there, though, in a way that make them ripe for discussion. The band, Green Day, had a concert here a few months ago, and in between songs the front man yelled “Fuck you, Donald Trump!” So, there is a video of the outburst and a quarter-inch of text. Okay, great, but how can I relate to that? Why would I care about his opinion?
JS: And it’s a spectacle.
LL: Yes, exactly.
JS: Do you have a cultural memory of a more robust public sphere?
LL: In the first years of Slovenia’s independence, in the 1990s, there was a lot of political debate on broadcast television and in newspapers. But now the debates are weaker and not worth bothering with. It is a coffee-time, chit-chat. I don’t know what happened.
JS: One explanation could be that there are not divisions over major issues.
LL: I think the problem is different; it is that the major issues are all blurred, they are not pin-pointed. The issue of privatization is discussed in terms of, well, all state-owned firms are bad, and the argument drifts into the same direction of anecdotes saying, “well, my aunt, she works in a state-owned company and none of them work, they just drink coffee and receive high salaries.” But it’s not true.
JS: You are now working on a project about state-owned companies.
LL: Yes. Because, I accidentally fell into the subject, and I realized that most state-owned companies rely on the brutal exploitation of workers. Take the Port of Koper. Last year, it made 40 million euros in profit; the state received nine million in dividends. It’s a majority-state-owned company. The state controls the Port, owns more than two-thirds of it. Okay. The Port of Koper employs 800 people. The rest, about 1,200, are migrant workers, employed by a private company that functions as a mafia. Slovenia, in effect, has a gang-master system that requires overtime in brutal amounts. And this is where it gets interesting: they are paid and taxed at minimum wage, and the rest in cash. I have obtained the contracts between the government and this company and this company and its workers, and when you add up the numbers, you realize that the government is losing a great deal of tax revenue, the dockworkers are losing pensions that they will need to repair their bodies later in life, and all the profit goes to the company. If the workers were paid on the books for their actual labor, then state would have received 20 million euros last year, not nine. The Port is so strong that it is almost like a government within a government, almost like an autonomous body. The government attempted to reform the management of the Port, and there were riots in protest, and the government backed down. The same pattern now spreads in all state-owned companies.
JS: And the diminishment of the state’s responsibilities and coffers will wind up producing social pathologies later?
LL: Yes. This could not have happened before privatization, because in Yugoslavia the trade unions were strong. Now they are weak.
JS: What percentage of the workforce is unionized?
LL: I believe it is less than 18 percent. During and after the transition, there was a high pressure put on trade unions, which were accused of being ballast from socialism. Whenever you started talking about worker’s rights, the response was always, “we’re not in socialism any more.” The fact is that those rights evolved under capitalism!
JS: The direction of history was supposed to have traveled from capitalism to socialism to communism. Now it seems to have gone backwards.
LL: Yes, and I think that consumerism has had a great negative impact on Yugoslavia. In the last years of socialism, you could not go to a store and buy a bottle of cooking oil if you did not bring an empty one along with you to return. In my household, the empty bottle of cooking oil was carefully preserved, so that I, as a child, would not be able to accidentally break it. God forbid! Forty-minutes-drive away was Austria, where we could go and purchase all the toys that we saw advertised on television and in the movies. The movies themselves came very late, years after their original release. And every weekend there would be a long line of traffic on the border with Austria where Slovenians would go to shop.
JS: Or to Italy?
LL: Yes, to Trieste. There were shops, with goods advertised only in Slovenian, that were open only on weekends, for the traffic coming over the border.
JS: That has changed now?
LL: All this has changed. Every bigger town in Slovenia now has its own shopping center.
JS: What about Internet shopping?
LL: There are two barriers. One, most people in my generation still have this fear of our credit cards being stolen or abused online. Two, respect for the concept of intellectual property here is still under-developed. In Yugoslavia, we grew up on piracy. So, it is hard for us to believe that we have pay for an app. Most of the post-socialist states have such gaps.
JS: You are 34. The concepts of individual consumer credit and personal financial portfolios in Slovenia are younger than you.
LL: My generation has gotten the worst end of the bargain. When Yugoslavia ended, our parents bought up the state-owned apartments for the price of a used car. Today, if I want to purchase my own apartment, I would have to put myself into personal debt until I turn 60. And I must try to buy, because 90 percent of apartments in Slovenia are occupied by private owners. Rents are through the roof, as the market for renting apartments is almost non-existent. I live with my parents. I have to drive two hours every dy to Ljubljana to commute to work. I will not be able to sell this dream to my daughter.
LL: There’s absolutely no way I can sell this dream and I think, having said, a lot less people will be willing to pay for university because it’s not that guarantee that it used to be now.
JS: Right. But, ironically, if you charge for the university, it becomes more valuable and more wanted—it becomes a status commodity. Some friends of mine and I were agitating a while ago for free college tuition and the abolition of student debt. It sounds nice, right? What we found is that there’s a tremendous amount of resistance to making college free. And the resistance, where do you think it comes from? It comes from the students, themselves. Because they look at anyone at a high-priced college, for example, who is advocating for “why should I have to pay, shouldn’t college be free?” as a freeloader, someone who’s trying to get something for nothing. And they look at going into debt for 30 years, or for 20 years, or for 10 years, going into more debt than any of their predecessors went into in order to get a college education as a right of passage, as a way of becoming a mature adult. Like their parents getting a mortgage for a home. It’s not considered burdensome to get this 30-year mortgage, it’s considered what it is to be an adult. So, they have so fully assimilated the idea of a college degree as something worth borrowing for. Not only do they not want it to be free, they resent and resist anyone that’s saying it should be free. So how can you get college to be free in the United States when the students, themselves, don’t want it to be free? Because they’ve so fully internalized the idea that it’s a commodity, and when it becomes a commodity, it becomes a status object, and therefore, it becomes an object of competition and the way of measuring one’s worth in the world. So, the numbers sound frightening, but it’s a conundrum from a certain perspective. Either all college has got to be free, all of it, and all debts have to be good, everybody has to go back to zero, immediately, all at once, or none of it has to happen. And, so, that’s not going to happen. Once you break into the… here, in Slovenia, once you start charging for tuition, forget it. You’ll never get it back.
LL: There is an option of charging because, for example, if you want to apply to…
JS: To graduate school.
LL: Yeah, to a faculty that has this high level of… a lot of people apply to it, and you have lower grades from your high school, then you don’t get accepted. But there’s a possibility that you get enrolled by paying. There’s this gap, which basically means regular studying, and this is irregular study, and it’s considered to be for someone who’s actively working because it’s on afternoons and on weekends and you pay for it but it’s…
JS: You can buy your way in.
LL: Yeah. This is basically buying your way in. It used to be quite popular, particularly in law school. I think one year, they actually filled all the spaces for irregular study, which is, wow, but it’s not anymore. The legislation says that it has to be no more than, I think, 10 percent of regular study, or something like that. I’m not sure.
JS: Alexander was saying than youth unemployment, or the unemployment rate, in general, was only nine percent, which doesn’t sound great, but I’ve heard worse. Is that your understanding?
LL: The problem with youth employment or unemployment in Slovenia now is…youth are active in terms of work. They’re, however, they work on contracts or even without contracts, on black markets, they work for references. I mean, I, as a journalist, my first year, I was working on a contract, like intellectual rights contract, which means I got paid only for published article in a newspaper. So, I would come to work, I would work the same as those people that are employed…
JS: But all the financial risk was yours.
LL: Yes. Exactly. So, if I would break a leg, it would financially burden me. If I, God forbid, get cancer, I’d go fuck myself.
JS: But, nonetheless, you still have health insurance, yes?
LL: But I have to pay for it, yes.
JS: You do. I asked this question earlier, and I didn’t quite understand the answer. So there is a basic health insurance that’s free?
LL: No, the basic health insurance, which costs around 10 euros, it’s either provided by your employee if you’re employed, or you have to pay it for yourself. When you are 26 or older. Until you’re 26, State pays if you’re a student or if you’re still in education. After 26, and if you’re not employed or, like in my case, if you work on the contract for intellectual property or anything else, you have to pay it yourself.
JS: You do. So, healthcare is not a right?
JS: …that the State guarantees.
LL: I mean, there are some…if I would prove that I’m socially in danger, the State would provide me that healthcare.
LL: No, no, no, no, no. Low income. But, really low income. So, if I get 600 euros per month on this contract, I don’t get the State healthcare. However, if in 4-5 months I didn’t get any salary, State would cover for me that.
JS: And your daughter and your wife?
LL: My daughter, yes, and my wife, it depends on her status, of course. However, if my wife is employed, I won’t get healthcare.
JS: Right, so it’s not guaranteed. It’s contingent, to some extent, on your income.
LL: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, but that’s the basic healthcare. Then you have the extra healthcare, which we all pay now by ourselves. The basic healthcare covers, I think, I mean, it covers, more or less, everything. However, some treatments, you would have to pay. For example, I had pain in my knee, went to my doctor, and she would say, “OK, you would have to go to the MRI scan.”
LL: Who’s going to pay for that?
JS: It’s not part of your coverage?
LL: It’s not part…now it is. That changed last year, I think.
JS: So they’re private insurance companies in Slovenia that you have to…
LL: Only three.
JS: Only three. Right. Well, we don’t have that many more in our country.
LL: And, needless to say, the price is not that much different between all three of them. So basically, choose by the logo or if you know someone who works there.
JS: Right, right.
LL: OK, this…should we…
JS: You want to switch questions again?
LL: Yeah, yeah.
LL: If we could carry on. No, because if I drift my mind away, I still had quite an issue completing all this…
LL: Because I have my own personal issues now.
JS: My apologies.
LL: No, no, no, no. It was…by no means…So, I would start with the whole concept of this sociological meeting today.
LL: Social imagination and social change. And your presentation yesterdays on Mills. So, let’s start there. Does the modern world have…is modern world lacking political dissidents?
JS: Political dissidents? No…dissident or dissonance?
JS: I think there are dissidents in every country, right? But what I think has changed since Mills’ time…are we incorporating Mills into the discussion?
JS: …is that there’s a very weak and fragmented sense of social consciousness. I think what’s changed is, I think politics are very clearly delineated in every culture, every nation. Most people understand who is in charge. Even children tend to understand who’s in charge. And it’s not hard to draw the connections between the decisions of the people that are in charge and the results of daily life. What is changed is an ability to connect what’s happening on your daily life with culture and society, at large. The sense of the collective. What Mills called the “sociological imagination” or what he just called “the imagination of the social.” You know, an ability to see that if you are going through a divorce, it may be that your life is introduced…some stresses that have been introduced, social tensions may have caused that, may have caused the same divorces among 10 of your friends, and then you have a different set of problems. Rather than completely internalizing your own intentions and stresses in life, or doing the opposite, which is blaming, you know, the bosses for everything and then becoming apathetic, I think that’s changed, I think because the sense, at least, and surely in the United States, that we have as a society is changed.
It’s changed, in part, because of the organization of the economy. When Mills was writing, he was writing at the important transformation point between industrial and post-industrial society, or what he called “the modern era” and “the post-modern era.” He was one of the first to use the term “post-modern era.” And he pointed out that, you know, in the industrial period in the United States, at least, which is roughly from, say, the 1870s until the 1960s, you know, where do you find people who are organized in a collective together without them having done it themselves, spontaneously? Well, you find them in factories. Where do you find 10,000 people, 20,000 people approximate to one another? You can find them in a factory. They’ve been brought together there by an industrial mode of production. You can find them in hospitals. You can find them in universities. And then, when you get people together is when you can begin to organize and start to see each other as a member of a collective or a member of a kind of society. What’s happened since the 60s in the United States and, I think, elsewhere to a lesser extent, or at least in a kind of different pace, is a kind of devolution of the collective into fragments. So, we use these metaphors in the United States now to describe what’s happening as a kind of fracturing, as a kind of fragmenting, or in politics, they call it a kind of polarization. Now we’re talking about our politics in terms of tribes, not parties. Because parties are too big to contain these factions and these tribes. They are, themselves, a kind of political society. In both cases, the Democrats and the Republicans of the United States, they can barely contain these different subsets. And our Founders—Jefferson, Madison, Washington—they called them factions. In politics, we have factions, and in society we have little, kind of nodes. We’re all nodes on some kind of network.
So, the sense of ourselves as making, encouraging each other to make an attempt to make visible invisible social relations is really nonexistent. And that makes it very hard to conceive of large-scale social change through social movements. And Mills’ model, like most people from that era, was as social change through collective social movements. And, I think to a large extent, that remains the case for people on the left and Liberals in the United States, where they think that if they can mobilize enough bodies, they can keep a social movement going. But they can’t. Again and again, we come upon this. It was supposed to happen in the 90s with labor, we have a, kind of, a new labor coalition that was going to make common cause with professors and intellectuals. It lasted about two weeks. 2011, we have Occupy Wall Street, which some of my friends were involved in and which sounded like a good idea…it didn’t even last the first winter. And not for lack of trying or for lack of moral purpose or clarity about, I think, what, ultimately, they wanted, it’s just, how can you keep all these people together? So, I think what we’re confronting is a challenge to our inherited models of how we make political and social change.
LL: OK. Now we’ve opened, like…
JS: Is it too much?
LL: I’ll start with this. Still, again, the concept of social imagination, which is necessary for some form of developing, not just pinpointing one issue, but also to pinpoint solutions. But social imagination in these environments of individualism, which we’re talking about, is it threatened? Does it have to include empathy, social imagination? Is there space for empathy in a world so fragmented?
JS: For the purpose of making social change? You mean empathy as a…
LL: I mean, as in relating to someone else by what is connecting us, not what’s happening to us, identity-wise.
LL: Where I will get, eventually, with that is…
LL: …class struggle versus identity struggle.
JS: I see. Well, when I think of empathy, what comes to mind is this phrase, “the caring classes.” You know, the kind of people who are almost designated by society as where all the empathy is supposed to concentrate: nurses, teachers, social workers. These are the people who are specialized in empathy, and they’re also usually the least paid and they have the least social status. So clearly, empathy is not an important part of the way that societies work in any normal way. It’s a specialized function. To make independent social change? Sure, of course, you have to be willing to put yourself in the position of someone who has become a victim of social forces, trying to help them articulate their views and to make common cause. And that seems quite difficult today because, as you’re suggesting with your question, we are not allowed to have or engage in biracial, for example, or multi-gendered coalitions. That model is dead because, if I’m not black, which, clearly, I’m not, neither are you, there’s thought to be no possible way I can ever imagine what it’s like to be black. OK. It’s identity politics, right? It’s politics by demography and politics by birth. It’s, in my opinion, self-defeating. It has been self-defeating in the United States. The only answer to the question of privilege is to assert another privilege. You have your privilege, now I want my privilege to trump your privilege. In 20th century, there were plenty of attempts to build especially biracial coalitions, where one could participate as a white person, or especially a lot of American Jewish men in the 50s and 60s went to the U.S. South to work in civil rights. Lock arms and work together. Biracial, you know, cooperation and participation. Conditions are almost impossible for that kind of thing today because one bears a certain almost existential guilt that it’s thought to be impossible to overcome. You can’t say, it’s unwise to even try to talk yourself out of it or talk yourself into another situation because every word you say is somehow held against you. I think I know how we got to that point, but I think even the most ardent advocates of forms of tribal politics, identity politics, know that they’re in a dead end, that it’s a cul-de-sac. There’s no exit.
LL: I was working, doing an Interview of Craig Calhoun. And on this issue, when I was asking him about class-based collective identities, does he see any potential, he argued that, particularly because of these demented jobs, they may belong to the same class, but their experience, their work experience, is completely different, one from another. So, it’s not like in a factory, where you have a machine and 100 people doing one same routine job and, therefore, relate to each other, he argued that the experience is what separates any potential for class-based collective identity. Would you agree with that?
JS: That the experience of…
LL: Of the worker, himself, yes, [from his workplace].
JS: Well, I’m not sure. Trying to think of the, kind of, specific example. We don’t have any. The closest thing we have to class politics in the U.S. is the coalition that’s put Donald Trump into office. And, in fact, also the closest thing that we have to successful identity politics is the coalition that put Donald Trump into office. So, we sort of have it, but we don’t have the kind that you might like.
LL: So, if I’m getting this right, you would say that you have a class-based identity only for the dreaded one percent?
JS: And the white working class.
LL: And the white working class. But does the white working class, as a collective identity, have a potential for social change?
JS: Well, I think they’re implementing it now. I mean, they have elected Donald Trump. One can argue endlessly and theoretically about whether this is a class or not. Many of the places in the country that Donald Trump did best in are rural areas. And nobody wants to talk about this, especially the United States. I tried for years to get some of my friends to write articles about rural life. They’re all vaguely embarrassed. I come from a rural background, so I wasn’t so much embarrassed, but the big divide, much bigger than the class divide, is the rural-urban divide. I mean, you have to understand, there’s been a massive change in the United States. The first time this change became really manifest was in the 1920s, when, for the first time in American history, more people lived in the cities than in the countryside. And this was just massive change because, first of all, this was the 1920s, so the country had been around for almost 300 years by that point in time, and we were a farming country, we were a nation of small farmers—and some big farmers, and slaves—but we were country people. Then people moved to the cities and it was not as a coincidence that in the 1920s is when we got the first taste of what they called the “new economy,” which is the version of the same kind of thing we have now. Lots of things have changed in the last 100 years, but the trajectory of the internal migration, which again is a lot harder to talk about than international immigration emigration, everyone wants to talk about. But the movement of the people within a country is more important, actually. In the last, let’s say since the 90s, all the rest of the media, the creative classes, so-called, have migrated to the metropolitan areas. And they did this because of racial phenomenon, whereby a lot of African Americans were priced out of the inner cities. It became gentrified, it became safer. The crime wave, which was last a big problem in the 90s, and Bill Clinton and his administration took care of that by reforming welfare, by increasing police tactics, there’s lots of things that happened in the internal policing of the U.S. population, but the cities became safer. A lot of college graduates immediately moved to the city and we became a country that was undergoing a very strong phenomenon of depopulation. And that included the flight of the remaining small manufacturers, either went to Mexico or went to Asia, closed up. And they left tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or apparently, several million people in the small counties all over the country without jobs, with an epidemic of drug use, which is referred to as the “opioid epidemic,” which I’m sure that you’ve heard of, which is an astoundingly large social pathology, much greater than the AIDS crisis in the 80s in terms of deaths. Tens of thousands of people are dying every year of overdoses from opioids. Many of them, not all of them, but many of them are in rural areas or in abandoned suburbs.
So, the kind of, movement of the cities—cities are thriving, rents are high, there’s lots of, you know, so-called innovation districts, cultural districts, all the media is there. And meanwhile, we have these, what Trump calls, not wrongly, the Forgotten Americans. And this is how he got elected. This is how he surprised every single last journalist in the country. There wasn’t one that predicted that this would happen. And it was because they had to have a kind of structural blindness about these things that were happening around the cities, and a lot of it is…I don’t know how many cities he won, but he was elected on the strength of the rural voters. So, you could argue that, and I think you have to take seriously for examples of social change and empathy, again, it was Trump’s fake empathy, ersatz empathy, whatever you like to call it for these forgotten Americans, which has brought about political change that we’ve seen in a generation. It would’ve been nothing for Hillary Clinton to be elected. It would’ve been the same as all the rest. But an earthquake of social change, of political change has happened. How did it happen? Not because of anything people—Liberals or Leftists—were doing, because of what they were doing and what he tapped into.
LL: Did it surprise you?
JS: I was absolutely shocked. I woke up in the middle of the night. I was having trouble sleeping. I woke up at four o’clock in the morning and I grabbed my iPhone and I checked on my New York Times app. I swear, my very first reaction was, this is a joke. I thought they were kidding. I thought this gotta be some kind of joke. My second reaction was, ah, I see. I get it. Because I’m from this area. My whole family voted for Trump. My whole family. And they’re not all bigots and horrible people, but they all voted for Trump. So, I thought, it’s happened.
LL: So, it took election of Trump, even for yourself, to overcome the blindness.
JS: Well, in my defense, most of the work that I’ve done, edited, and have written has, in fact, I would say the vast majority of it, has been attacks on Liberals. Urban Liberalism has been the main target of my attack, but my own political affiliations are neither here not there. I think of myself as a Conservative Anarchist, which, you know, almost nobody knows what that is. I could tell you, but you’re probably not interested.
LL: I’m more than interested.
JS: Well, the anarchist part, there is a tradition of it, it’s not articulated well in the country, even among very educated intellectual historians understand very little about it, but we have figures that have come to this particular dispensation. William James is one of them, Paul Goodman, George Orwell was a Tory Anarchist. It does exist. The Anarchist part’s easy, it’s the distrust of authority and the priority of freedom. But I have friends who are anarchists, who are Utopian Anarchists in the sense that they want to bring about a transformation of human personality. I mean, they want to make new men and new women. Mills was one of these. Mills was also an Anarchist, but he really wanted that dialectic of social evolution, which was so important for Communism but has also been important for Americanism in a different way, to make new personality, where the human personality is considered infinitely plastic. And that, I think is a mistake, so I don’t like the utopian aspect of that, and I’m much more conservative and comfortable with more traditional cultural roles. A bit of a hybrid, but it’s hard to get behind any political party.
LL: Mills is considered, also, to be very influential in the development of the New Left.
LL: Would you agree, the Modern Left has completely neglected the class struggle and compensated with identity struggle.
LL: Which, then, paradoxically, is absorbed by the ideology of Neoliberalism, that every man is responsible for his own success within the, or every group.
JS: I don’t know about that last part. I think a lot of the Left, especially academic Left, is formally against Neoliberalism, and those are the people that have identified it as Neoliberalism. I mean, it’s not like there’s a Neoliberal party, nobody who is Neoliberal says, “I’m a Neoliberal. This is what I stand for.” It is a term, it’s an invidious term. It’s a term of abuse. It’s pejorative, and the Left and some Liberals have been the ones to coin it. So, I don’t think that they are advancing, specifically, that outcome, but it is an open question about whether the doctrine of multiculturalism, which is part of it, is part of the Left, a non-negotiable part of the left, isn’t just corporatism by another name. In other words, if you look at the eagerness of American corporations, the largest ones, to embrace multiculturalism, it’s a little bit unsettling. Now, there’s a new wave of corporations in Silicon Valley which have not embraced multiculturalism. Well, they have to the extent that they want to import engineers from India, but, you know, they’re not good on a lot of these questions. That’s actually relatively new because the older companies, even the ones that are not so old, like Walmart, you ring up their corporate relations departments, and they’ll sing you a song about multiculturalism. I mean, they’re all for the diversity of the American workforce. Nobody is not on record as wanting the same things that come out of the most radical precincts of the Far-Left academic conferences. They all say they’re wanting the same things. Except for, now, some Silicon Valley startups. And so, there has been an argument among some dissidents on the Left and dissident intellectuals, there’s a theorist in Illinois named Walter Benn Michaels, who argues that it’s this embrace of multiculturalism that has come directly at the expense of class struggle. Yes, there are some people that have said that. It doesn’t mean that pluralistic values are, per se, wrong. It’s not clear to me that they’re definitely opposed. But there is some sense that it’s a lot easier to get the leaders of America to agree in some forms of affirmative action, for example, or equal pay for women, than it is to get them on board with class struggle. Why don’t we say that? Because, as the multiculturalism has risen as an ideology of the corporate elite, labor unions have progressively declined. Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s necessarily a direct connection, but it’s clear that you can have one without the other very easily.
LL: But has, when you discuss multiculturalism and corporations, did these ideas that developed sometimes as a struggle for rights of minority group, did they become commodity? Something you can pitch, like…
JS: Well, they become part of the corporate self-image, for sure. And to the extent that that self-image is dependent on advertising as a commodity, yes. So, one of the things that’s happened for example, so you take massively successful website called Breitbart, which is the brainchild of Andrew Breitbart, who is the former co-founder of The Huffington Post, with Arianna Huffington, and then who died very quickly after starting the website. It was taken over, then, by Steve Bannon, whose name you know, and transformed, then, into an engine of the alt-right, whose virtual calling card is bigotry. Now, they make it impossible to, for people like myself, to support them. It’s just impossible. You can’t support people who are so casually eager to insult and to, even if you agree that they’re on to something with these Forgotten Americans, the whole rhetoric, the whole social class that’s been forgotten, has been hijacked for this movement, which makes it impossible to support. What’s happened to Breitbart is interesting. There has been a very strong and apparently somewhat successful campaign of boycotts. And the argument is very simple. There’s groups that are formed specifically to deprive Breitbart of advertising. So, they go to the advertisers and they say, “How can you be associated with bigotry? Don’t you know that we’re all multicultural?” And it works. It crippled the site, the advertising on the site. By appealing to major corporations whose advertisements had appeared there, nobody wants to be associated with that. So, to that extent, multiculturalism is a commodity. I suppose maybe it’s just a negative reference point.
LL: You mentioned Breitbart and his prodigy child Milo Yiannopoulos.
JS: Yes. What a clown!
LL: Yes, but nevertheless, he got banned from several campuses, violently.
JS: But he was fired, first, from Breitbart. Yeah.
JS: Who knew that pedophilia was an inch too far?
LL: For exactly the same thing he was promoting, as he’s a promoter of free speech. And then he was fired exactly for speaking freely about an issue that is taboo. But nevertheless, the whole concept of his initial argument, most of his speeches, is that he only tries to promote free speech. To promote the debate. Even if there’s radical bigot ideas that you don’t agree, that you should debate them. And now, there’s no space for debating these initial things, re-debating them, maybe. Is this maybe…this is some arrogance on the left side. Like, not willing to re-debate something.
JS: Well, the problem is that…
LL: Because then you open space for someone who comes with these initial arguments and you say, “Ah, I can agree with that. Maybe we should be more open to the debate.” And then he carries on with his bigotry.
JS: But in his case, and I think, yes, I think you’re right in the sense, you’re on to something important in that the, to some extent, his success is predicated on mistakes by his opponents. However, there are no arguments. He has no arguments. He is a kind of absurd product, distillation of the worst aspect of this collision. Because there’s nothing to debate. He has no ideas. He has no arguments. His only, it’s schtick. All it is, is a performance. And all he’s performing is the capacity to offend. And so, he offends. And so his opponents, his adversaries take offense. Just as they’re supposed to. That’s it. If he were allowed to say more, he would have nothing to say. There is nothing there. He’s a clown. He’s just a clown. And to the extent that he’s a kind of symbol of this, OK. But, it’s not the case that if they let him speak. I mean, the worst thing that can happen for the guy is if they let him just continue to talk. And wait till he’s done. And then you’d look at him and you’d say, “Yeah, and? I mean, that’s all you got? Really?” And then he would just go away.
LL: Exactly, but that’s what happened.
JS: It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because taking offense is now the American way. It’s true. Everybody is very eager to be offended. And there is something malignant about the debate in the U.S. In 1968, and I can’t stress that enough, it’s definitely malignant. I mean, anybody of conscience and who’s being honest will say that. In 1968, as you know, the anniversary is next year of the global student protests. In April and May, the protests happened at Columbia University. Mills had been dead, he died in 1962, he’d been dead for 6 years. Nevertheless, the CIA had written a report that year called Restless Youth in which they identified Mills, along with Frantz Fanon and Herbert Marcuse, as one of the three inspirations for the international left. So, they had Mills on their mind when they were protesting, especially at Columbia. And, you know, it was a tremendously destructive protest, and an even worse reaction—called the police, there was a lot of injuries, police brutality. When it was all over, two of Mills’ former colleagues, one of them named Richard Hofstadter and another one named Frank Freidel were walking near the library, and this shows up in an oral history that I came upon, and Frank Freidel says to Richard Hofstadter, “it’s too bad Charlie wasn’t here for the protest. Charlie would’ve been in his element.” You know, Charles Wright Mills. Right, you know? So, they called him Charlie. And Hofstadter said, “You got it entirely backwards. He would’ve been appalled at the destruction and the interruption of the educational process by the students.” I think Hofstadter was right. I think he would’ve been appalled. And I think he’d be appalled at what’s happening now. The violent, intimidating tactics of not just the black-clad Anarchists. They’re just another easily caricatured group of small people, but the protesters, in general, who are trying to shut down the right to speak. I’ve organized dozens of events, myself, for speakers. I’ve never once in my entire life stood outside a door and said, “go away.” You know, the right to speak is, it’s important. You should let the person speak. You should debate. Ideally, if someone has good taste, they don’t invite some guy like Milo to come in the first place, because he’s a moron, and he’s just there to get a rise out of you and for nothing else. Ideally, you have better taste, but if that must be, then you let him be, too. But the whole idea that we’re struggling over a right to speak, and that it costs now $250,000 for Berkeley for security arrangements to let one of these right-wing clowns in to speak, it’s a travesty for everybody. And it’s a farce. And I think Mills would be very upset about it and I think people on the left and Liberals are afraid. Trump says that, you know, the owners of the NFL are afraid of their players. I think the professors are afraid of their students. I’m sure about that. And the atmosphere on campus is atrocious. There’s… level of intellectual freedom, and not just freedom of speech but intellectual freedom for the professors to work…it’s very, very small.
LL: I think also…
JS: You agree?
LL: I think I would, yes. Not, maybe not in Slovenia.
JS: OK. Um…
LL: No, because if I lose the flow…
JS: I understand.
LL: What you just said is quite similar to one professor that became a YouTube star, Peterson.
LL: Yes. You’ve heard of him?
LL: He’s basically arguing that…I mean, he has also lectures on these topics. He’s a psychologist…and his argument is, he has issue with gender, with multiplication of different genders.
LL: And his point is that now that being gender unbiased has become so obsessive, [being] compensated with being offended, that the professors, themselves, notice that they do self-censorship.
LL: And that he stressed that this is, in your opinion, does self-censorship exist?
JS: Well, I’m not a professor, so…
LL: Yes, but you have experience on campuses.
JS: And I know that one could or should isolate gender among other issues. Professors first learn to censor themselves around other professors. If he’s being honest, that’s what he should really say. They learn how to incorporate their ideas into a very narrow niche of professional acceptability and they learn that through peer review, and then they learn it through committees that give them tenure, and they learn it from the deans. So, by the time they’re done learning self-censorship from their colleagues and their superiors, it’s possible that they may have some stray opinions left over for their students, but not likely. So, let’s be honest about where the real repression comes from here. I don’t know that arguing for someone’s freedom to insult someone’s gender is really worthwhile. There’s various ways of approaching the question of transgender. One of them, which is my disposition, is to say, is a kind of shrug of the shoulders and to say, OK. And that’s what I said when my niece told me that she wanted to become my nephew. My family is full of, as I mentioned, rural Pennsylvania Trump voters. My niece said that, you know, she wants to get, she decided that she always should’ve been a man, so she wants to become a man. So, we called her Kyla, now we call him Ky. He’s 24. It’s a little bit of a strange transition, but my family handled it like I think most families do, which is, OK. Uh, you know. Now, there’s another way of handling it, which is to say, “I’ve always been a man and all of you people around me are all confused about your genders. And not only do I want you to respect my choice, I want you to think about your gender, and I want you to respect and to join the movement for ideological transformations in gender.” I would get off the train and say, “I respect your choice to change your gender and you respect my choice to keep mine.”
So, when it comes, and this is related to the conservative anarchism I was talking about before, when it comes accompanied by a grand ideological project which feels like a religious conversion and makes impositions on the moral psychology of everyone around them, this is when it becomes disruptive sometimes and forces people like this Peterson guy you mentioned to make these kind of statements and choices. It puts them on the defensive. But I don’t think it has to be that way. I wasn’t at all surprised, by the way, when Trump said during his campaign that, with respect to the debate in North Carolina about should trans-people be able to use the bathrooms, he said, “let them use whatever they want.” Because his attitude toward trans-people, as well as toward homosexuals, have been, more or less, OK. But then his later, you know, disgracefully, he’s now trying to throw them out of the military. But I don’t know that that’s what his natural approach would have been. It’s what his advisors and his evangelical vice president has probably pushed on him. But, nevertheless, he’s embraced it. So…
LL: Would you prefer that we move inside?
JS: Either way. I’m fine.
LL: OK. OK.
JS: Eventually, I’d like to get another beer, but I’ll wait for that.
LL: I’ll just text Sam to arrange another beer.
JS: Oh, I don’t want to make him go out of his way. No, never mind. I’ll just wait. It’s fine.
LL: I believe he has time.
JS: He’s been awfully hospitable.
LL: He’s great.
LL: He’s actually, uh, this sociological society, he made a great impact as a student on it. Because before, I’m one year older than him, and before, this was just a party of professors from two faculties. And he, with his persistence, made it a professor-student event. He brought 50-60 students. Because when I was in my first year, nobody would go here. Solely because it was too expensive. So he recognized the problem issue and he made arrangements for students that are acceptable. Now, I think he is also opening it to other fields. So, he’s doing a really great job here.
JS: Yeah, I like him a lot.
LL: And he’s also a good friend. Right. So, between intellections, as you say that they are indoctrinated in self-censorship throughout their process of becoming a professor. So, there is still a lot of open space for another Charles Mills. A dissident, one who wouldn’t subordinate to self-censorship.
JS: He would never even get a job interview today, much less tenure.
LL: And this is probably an issue in modern universities?
JS: No. They don’t miss him.
LL: But an issue for sociology?
JS: Well, there are plenty of sociologists that gesture in the direction of Mills’ work and say the right things. But how many of them do the kind of traveling that he was doing and write the kind of books for an educated public? To some extent, it’s an unfair expectation. Mills wrote when the universities were expanding. His public was a member of, typically a graduate of a college as well as a professional working in the field of design or art or working for the government or maybe a soldier, but had college degrees because, in the post-war period, the American university system was shaped by the impact of World War II, and just exploded with money from the government. We had this thing called the G.I. Bill, which made colleges free for returning soldiers. Some of the soldiers sat in Mills’ classes. It was just a tremendous explosion of college-educated people, and then, in addition, books were very important. Mills was one of the first American writers to vest the new technology of paperback books with political content. So his book called Listen, Yankee selling 350,000 copies in its first year. There’s no professor that sells 350,000 copies of anything these days, much less a book about a revolution in America’s backyard. So, he really took advantage of this time. Since then, as we’ve discussed, the university system has shrunk. It’s not that there aren’t as many bodies, there are. But the significance of what they’re doing has just withered. Nobody pays any attention to sociologists in the United States. There’re lots of them. Not as many as there used to be, departments have close. But the cultural importance is nothing. Social media is a big reason for that. A lot of the attention given to opinion formation happens on social media. The other competitive sector, which has also grown tremendously, almost in an inverse relationship to the decline of the universities, is what we call think tanks, non-profit research groups, which have boards of directors which are full of corporate leaders and wealthy private individuals. And they have hundreds of millions of dollars and they perform contract research and conceive of themselves and present themselves as policy shops for either the government in power or the government in waiting. So, the connection that Mills is trying to make with the paperback books is now covered in social media. And the connection he was trying to make for influencing political work is now covered by the think tanks in a way that they really weren’t back then. Not to say that they didn’t exist—his friend Paul Lazarsfeld ran a very important research operation. But now, the sociologists, those poor people are left to their students to talk about the sociological imagination and shuffle them off to a $35,000 a year job as a social worker in some rural county trying to help opioid addicts. I mean, it’s not a profession that is flourishing. There are parts of social science that are. If you include economics. As you know, economists become important in direct ration to the level of privatization and capitalist insinuation in any society. So, it’s good to be an economist, not so good to be a sociologist. So, it’s a very different time, a very different period. And Mills is half remembered, largely forgotten.
LL: The immigration within countries, not going way back, but back to that issue…so, if I’m right understand this Forgotten America, the rural areas, would you say that they are the victims of social dumping?
JS: Social dumping?
LL: Yeah, social dumping as in dumping the prices of labor either by exporting the businesses to cheap labor states or by importing cheap…
JS: Well, I’m not an economist and I haven’t studied the issue, so I don’t know the truth about immigration and wages. My sense, from reading people who do now, is that it’s a red herring, what we call a red herring. You know, it’s a false…it’s not true. Immigration is a net gain for the economy, it doesn’t depress wages. But the idea that it is, the idea that Mexican labor, for example, coming over the border, cheap, taking jobs away from Americans, is a very old myth in the U.S. It’s been going on for a very long time. And it started, really got its first political teeth when the nature of immigration to America first really changed. And that was in the late 19th century when, for the first time, immigration policy opened up to Southern and Eastern Europeans. For the most part, it was Western Europeans who had immigrated to the country in large waves. The last large waves being Germans in the 1830s and Irish in the 1850s. But after the Civil War and the period of industrial America, the growth of factories and the desire for cheaper labor put pressure on the government to change the immigration laws. Suddenly, we got Jews coming, you know? From Southern and Eastern Europe, Italians coming, you got Polish coming, you got Hungarians coming, you got Romanians coming, you got, like…this is when, this idea, first came about that they’re taking jobs that old line American Protestants should have instead. It wasn’t true then because the demand for labor was just accelerated to the extent that, you know, we needed the cheap labor. And this includes Chinese who built all of our railroads, as well. So, now, it’s Mexicans that they say, you know, they’re worried about, right? But the basic idea, the nativist idea, the idea that the labor economics argument is a stand-in for what’s really a cultural debate has been going on for a long time. Donald Trump did not invent it. You know, 130 years, 125 years it’s been going on. So.
LL: No, the reason I’m asking this is because last year, I had Interview of this Italian professor, who was guest on this event, and we were also discussing the free labor market within the EU. And what, surprisingly, happened, because there was this idea, which actually worked, let’s say, for example, [in times] in Yugoslavia, the whole now-western region of Slovenia, the one that’s next to the border of Italy, was economically propelled decades ago by Italian pensions that were four times the amount of Slovenian. Now, the difference is not that developed. And there was this idea that less developed countries would benefit from migrant workers because they would bring back the money from the developed countries and, thus, helping propel the less developed countries. However, what happened now with younger generations is that they move, they work slightly cheaper than the local would, but they don’t leave money back. They live there.
JS: They stay.
LL: Yeah, they stay. And, for example, Austria now has imposed an anti-social-dumping law, which basically, it doesn’t mean closing the borders, but it means that if they catch you paying under the minimum wage your worker…for example, a lot of Slovenian people provided people from Bosnia to work there for, I think, construction. However, if they catch you that you are not [abiding] the laws, Austrian laws about minimum wage securities and so on, there’s really harsh penalties that can even result in prison. And this is also to protect from importing people from less developed countries to work for salaries that are not sufficient to live in that particular state.
JS: I think 30 percent of American small businesses would immediately close if they were not able to import cheap workers, including Trump’s own properties in Florida, which, as he’s acknowledged, relies on importing seasonal labor. I mean, there are various ways of getting around it, you know. Workers won’t do the job, he says, American workers, they need…
LL: And, could that eventually become an issue, you brought up the open border idea, could that become an issue, downgrading the standard of one particular country to a less developed country?
JS: For the U.S.?
LL: OK, for the U.S. Let’s say Texas-Mexico.
JS: Well, this is a big country, you know, and there’s so much going on within it. One thing that happens, I’ll try to answer this, I’m not sure if I will, but I’ll try to get you closer. For example, the big defense contractor and maker of massive planes, Boeing. You know this company, Boeing?
JS: …has a big plant in Washington state in the Northwest. And several years ago, they tried to move to South Carolina, or maybe it was North Carolina, I don’t remember which of the southern states there are, because they didn’t like the tax benefits and the breaks that they were getting in Washington enough. So, you know, we have the same phenomenon in the U.S., and there was a big debate about it, should they be able to do it? So, we have the same phenomenon of globalization, kind of within our own country, where different states have different standards. And the U.S. South, from the perspective of corporate exploiting class, you know, is the best place to be because the labor standards are different. For that to happen, what you suggest, the U.S. would have to have uniform labor standards in all of its states. But we don’t. We have a labor department, we have a National Labor Relations Board, but even when we have worker safety standards that are passed by Congress, the enforcement is, in some places, is nil. So, we don’t have standards for American workers. I think…
LL: Is this connected to the urban/rural gap that you…
JS: It is, yeah, I think so. But I think it’s connected, but that divide, which I think is the most important divide in the country, and I don’t understand why more people don’t agree with me, I think the urban-rural divide is by far the most important social division we have in the country. In terms of the labor question, is breaks down between skilled labor and unskilled labor. I mean, everybody wants jobs, but nobody wants jobs that are unskilled because that’s where you get the social dumping or the social import. And even if they are skilled in their short period of time, like seasonal labor, nobody wants those, either, because they don’t provide any kind of continuity and you can’t build a family around it, and, in fact, people have to leave their families where they are and come to do these jobs and then go back. But everybody wants a skilled laborer, and I think that the bigger problem, especially in the rural areas, is there’s no replentishing or mechanism to teach people new skills or to enable them to retain the skills that they do have. Mills was very eloquent about this question of craftsmanship, he called it. Craftsmanship as a kind of lost ideal in this factory system. And, ironically, craftsmanship, which he thought was epitomized by the shoemaker, let’s say for example, is now coming back, not in the rural areas as a way of making a living, but in the urban areas as a niche gentrifying business of craft beer and boutique this and that, you know, which are almost a mockery of the kind of careful work that used to be enough to make a living rather than just sell at an incredibly inflated cost, to people who may miss it or have a nostalgic feeling about hand-crafted beer. You even have it here, right? Everywhere there’s a kind of gentrification, it’s all mostly the urban areas. That’s what they’re selling. They’re selling a lost idea from the rural life that used to support an entire social class. Now, they’re just, you know, they’re making a mockery of it.
LL: But why are we, as a society, so fascinated by this mythological past.
JS: Well, in the U.S., it’s called the pastoral ideal. You know, we were supposed to be a republic and not a democracy. In fact, the Founders explicitly rejected democracy. We were supposed to be a Jeffersonian Republic of small farmers and that was our founding myth. And in the U.S., almost nobody’s attached to it anymore. At least, consciously. It’s long ago sent to the ash heap. And you can see this in the changing attitudes toward Thomas Jefferson, himself, who is a kind of prism through which American identity is filtered. Jefferson is very much out of fashion now, you know. Jefferson is a bad guy now because, you know, he had slaves and he impregnated his slave mistress and he’s a hypocrite. And so, it’s no coincidence that the most recent racial conflagration that’s happened in the U.S. happened at Jefferson’s university, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It’s no coincidence at all. The white supremacists rallied to Mr. Jefferson’s university and they didn’t, interestingly enough, neither adored nor attacked Jefferson’s statue, himself. They weren’t worshiping Jefferson, but it was such a sight of incredible ambivalence and tension in the U.S. and the American identity, and it happened right under Jefferson’s nose. It’s very interesting. Some of these people aren’t attached to that very pastoral idea, which the imagine as a white farmer’s republic, small republic. And others are bitterly angry at the extent to which it represents hypocrisy and treachery.
LL: Simon! Simon!
JS: Does this make sense? Does this, is it helpful?
LL: Yes, yes, of course. I mean, it got me thinking, so I suppose it should get the readers thinking, too.
JS: But this, I mean, the thing about America is that it’s an experiment. I mean, it’s still an experiment and it’s hard to be definitive about…
LL: But it’s more successful experiment than…..
JS: It’s been a very successful experiment, it’s just hard to be definitive about what’s coming. I mean, we elected a constitutional law professor and eloquent African American as our president, and re-elected him. And then we followed him with a moron. You know, with a racist, bigoted…well, I take that back, I don’t know that he’s racist or bigoted…with a person who was very comfortable using racism and bigotry to his political advantage. You couldn’t have two men who are more opposed, in temperament, in policies, in character. You just couldn’t. I mean, you have a casino magnate who’s been married three times versus, you know, an African American man who has, apparently, have a good marriage and is completely scandal-free. We’re the same people that elected these two people, not 20 years apart, but right in back. And some of the same voters who voted for Obama, in fact many of them, voted for Trump. They turned. What does that tell…
LL: They were very disappointed by him.
JS: Ahhhhhh…Obama left with very high approval ratings. He left with higher approval ratings than either George Bush or Bill Clinton in their last year. He was the highest rated, insofar as you can give credit to the polling. I don’t think they were disappointed in him, personally, but they didn’t think that the trajectory of the country was going in their direction. And it’s true that he didn’t speak to them. There was a time during his first campaign for presidency when he said, 2008, he went to a small town in Pennsylvania, and he said, I don’t remember the exact details, but he received some dissonance, some question that indicated a lot of anger in the small town. It wasn’t far from where I grew up. And he said that this is why they cling to guns and religion. This is not the right thing to say to these people. And it was a mark of his cultural, university-educated arrogance.
LL: And blindness?
JS: And blindness. Trump does not have that blindness. He understands them perfectly. How? Who knows? But he does. So, the idea that Trump and Obama represent completely different sets of the electorate, there’s something to it. But the more interesting aspect is the same people, the Obama voters who voted for Trump. That is an indication of the kind of divided ambivalent sense of American identity that we’re still working out in a very big way. And, unfortunately, inflicting on the rest of the world. The good news is that, assuming Trump does not drop a nuclear bomb on someone, probably the damage that he’s going to be able to do is going to be fairly limited. His advisors are another thing, but there are term limits, he’s not going to be Berlusconi. If he makes it in two, he’ll be out. And, you know, that, sort of, dynamic that we have in American politics of reform and reaction, reform and reaction, that’s our, kind of, yin and yang. That’s how the country beats, you know. We have the reform and then reaction, then we swing back again. We have this historian named Arthur Schlesinger who called it the cycles of American politics. Yeah, there’s definitely something to it. So, assuming he doesn’t do anything catastrophic, and with the exception of the Supreme Court, which he can inflict on the rest of us for a long time, the damage can be undone. And the environment, you know. Let’s not talk too much about that. I might change my mind.
LL: OK. You were very critical on this innovation culture.
LL: What is the core of your criticism? Can you just go briefly through your criticism of innovation, the main issues you see with it?
JS: Of innovation?
LL: Of innovation culture, yes.
JS: Well, I could try to be brief and concise, but maybe you should ask me one more, what aspect are you most interested in because it took me 10,000 words to…
LL: I know, yes. Even for me, it’s really hard to…because right now what I’m trying to do is not me picking out from these 10,000 words, because you can do it obviously better since you’re the author. So, if I’m missing the core point…
JS: I understand. Well, one way of putting it is: innovation as government and corporate policy brings about social class changes that are already happening. In other words, it’s not every innovation for workers, it’s always innovation for university-educated or, alternatively, very well-capitalized startups. And their model, their economic model, is never to hire 10,000 workers, it’s to invent some software that enables other companies and governments not to hire workers. Meanwhile, every place that an innovation district happens, real estate prices go through the roof. And it drives out poor people and lower middle-class people who can’t afford to pay the rents. I learned that you had a referendum last week here and you have a lot of them now.
LL: Not as we used to.
JS: Not as much as you used to?
LL: Thank heaven for that because now there’s this limit imposed for a referendum to be successful—20 percent…
JS: 20 percent.
LL: …of the voters must vote either yes or no. Basically, they must vote no because if they don’t, the vote yes is going to be imposed, anyway.
JS: Right. Well, it reminded me that in Cambridge, Boston area, which is a world-famous university area, we have had lots of innovation districts. And the groundwork was laid when there was a referendum about rent control. We had, in Massachusetts, rent control. A limit on how much a landlord could charge for rent so that a tenant could conceivably stay in the apartment for a long time, which drove the landlords crazy as non-rent-controlled properties saw the market values go way up. So, they did a referendum, and they got rid of rent control. Now, that opened up all the rents for the whole area, they all went through the roof. All the poor people, all the lower middle-class people can’t afford. All the corporate professionals come in from the big tech companies, supported by government grants, tax breaks, hedge funds, venture capital to work on their little experiments. And what are they making? Are they curing cancer? No. Are they curing the common cold? No. They’re reinventing television for our app. Well, OK, but is that worth tens of millions of dollars and change and the entire social class environment? You know, their taste in architecture, in my opinion, is generally pretty ugly. They’re not artists, they’re corporate technologists. Many of them don’t have children. Many of them are young, which tends to mean that the school-aged population for school districts goes down the more you have innovation. And you have fewer students attending school, you have a decline in the budget for education, which is then met by the very startup people who try to sell the school districts their technology to do more with less, which is usually proprietary, and which extracts privacy, information from the students, flow back into the big data machines. So, you know, it’s a kind of exploitative arrangement that is masked
as a step toward universal progress.
LL: How did this particular referendum get successful?
JS: Because the real estate industry sponsored a referendum, and all the right people from outside funded the referendum. Now, the people, they were unable to get the people to elect candidates who would agree, as part of their platform, to take away rent control because nobody wanted rent control to go away. But they were able to get it done through a referendum, which has been a tool of the right in the U.S., which is uncomfortable because they say it’s direct democracy. Actually, it’s a marketing campaign.
LL: So, this underlines a pretty dystopian vision of society, eventually. No art, no culture, no intellectual profits, benefits, Just innovations that are…
JS: They’re designed for a very narrow class that, yeah, that exploit. I mean…
LL: And again, we have class struggle.
JS: Pardon me?
LL: And again, we have class struggle, in between.
JS: Well, there is tremendous class consciousness by the rich. They’re the most class-conscious force in the country. Not at the bottom. Well, the very bottom has some, in the rural areas. They wouldn’t think of it as class consciousness. I have this friend David Graeber, do you know David Graeber? He’s the anthropologist, he wrote a book called Debt, and he’s at the LSE and he coined the phrase “99 percent.”
LL: Yes, yes. I think it’s also, it’s translated in Slovenian if I’m not mistaken.
JS: He should be coming here next January. One of his books is being translated.
LL: Yeah, I think the Debt was. I mean, I read it, I’m not sure if it was in English or Slovenian.
JS: So, David, you know, when we were talking about this innovation stuff, he pointed out that the, you know, how did The Beatles become The Beatles? How did they manage to come up with this, how did they have the time to form a band in a non-profitable endeavor? Because they were all on the dole! They were all on the dole! They were all on this British welfare system, you know? I mean, you can’t expect…where’s your music going to come from? Where’s your art going to come from if all of your young people are either trying to cash in throughs startups that are funded by venture capital people or, alternatively, taking out student loans to go to incredibly overpriced colleges, and then not being able to pay for them. I mean, your future is mortgaged in the U.S. at a very early age. So, there’s no space, there’s no possibility of taking a few years to try to become The Beatles. So, where’s the music going to come from? YouTube, I guess, it’s gotta to come from now. There is a bit of a movement for a universal basic income. Basic income is in vogue on certain sectors of the U.S. Even some Libertarians are getting behind it.
LL: Libertarians in U.S…
JS: Some Libertarians are now behind a basic income.
LL: Sorry, did I understand you correctly, in some places in the U.S., it is already, the basic income is…
JS: No. But the idea is…
LL: Ah, the idea.
JS: No, the movement now in some places, in Seattle, in particular, but many other areas, is to raise the minimum wage. There is, it’s been raised. There’s been a little bit of an embarrassment about how low it is. So, it’s been getting up there a little bit, but not anywhere near what it would actually cost to raise a family or to even afford rent.
LL: So, this is probably a great place to conclude. How did this happen that the, and this is also relates closely to Mills’ work that the elites have their own class identity. Did 99 percent?
JS: They revolted. They revolted. There was a great book about this by an historian named Cristopher Lasch called The Revolt of the Elites. They revolted, the withdrew, they seceded from the country. They formed their own. They withdrew from the idea of social obligation to Americans. They gave up on America, basically. They saw the possibilities of accumulating great fortunes, and relieved themselves of taking care of their fellow person, citizen. The idea of becoming a citizen of the country, and it went away at the very same time that your country changed. Because there was always this sneaking worry, even among conservative businessmen, that if they didn’t take care of the workers, if they didn’t keep everybody just happy enough, communism, socialism might sneak in the door somehow. The welfare state, in the grand scheme of things, the Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was widely understood as an effort to stop communism. I mean, 1919, 1929, the global recession, the great depression. If Franklin Roosevelt doesn’t, if something isn’t done, we’re going to have, you know, 100,000,000 workers who are going to be re-evaluating their attitudes toward the Soviet Experiment. This whole period, including Mills’ period and extending into the 60s, really was an effort to head off the global class struggle. And America did that, and did it very successfully. The idea that the top of the corporate chain had something in common with his secretary, something that was often said by the corporate elite, the sense of social responsibility. But it didn’t come from the goodness of their heart, it’d come from this recognition that there was an alternative model in the world. And, you know, it was the Soviet Union. And, then, of course, later, there was China, right? And so, if we want to keep American identity fractured and ambivalent and contradictory as it is, we want to keep things the way America, the American way of life, then we must extend this sense of social obligation.
LL: With fall of the Berlin Wall, the threat of communism is gone.
JS: That’s it. No more global class struggle.
LL: And with the identity struggle, but that struggle is blurred by…
JS: Sure. The identity struggle is a perfect substitute for the class struggle because it keeps everybody at each other’s throats.
LL: And engaged.
JS: Sure, they have this figment of, they think they’re engaged, they think they’re getting somewhere. They’re just, you know, the top-most elite is looking back on this and thinking, “have fun!” Yes, absolutely. And it’s exactly what Trump is doing, very much deliberately. His advisor Steve Bannon said before he left, after the Charlottesville question, very accurately, that he hopes that Trump’s antagonists and adversaries continue to talk about racism. He said, the more they talk about racism, the more we win. I mean, it’s a very astute, evil comment. He’s absolutely right. And meanwhile, what did Trump’s adversaries do? All they talk about is, he’s a racist, he’s a bigot. The more they talk about that, the more they win. You can’t grasp this dynamic, you can’t understand what’s happening. Very important, and it’s important because, you know, they’re not worried, the American corporate elite. Inequality is dramatically, but they’re not worried. Why should they be worried? There’s no alternative in the world model of social development. There was, but we won. So, you know, that’s how they feel. So, why should they anymore? What’s going to happen? The worst that’s going to happen is, you know, they’ll tear each other to bits. The Trump people, the Steve Bannon people, they don’t like these white supremacists. They don’t have any special, like… there’s some theory that, like, you know, Trump and his people are trying to redeem white Christian civilization and that’s why they are in with like Putin. There’s maybe something unconscious or half-conscious about it. Mainly, they’re just happy because it keeps everybody distracted. The, you know, the white supremacists, the Steve Bannon, himself, called “looney, nut jobs.” I mean, let them fight it out with the leftists and let both sides think that they’re getting somewhere. They’re not getting anywhere.
LL: And, to conclude, because I would conclude there but I need this one thing in between. Just for my understanding, the Forgotten America, the rural area, you also don’t develop a common identity but is there also the identity struggle within these parts, within the rural America?
JS: Because there’s no one reporting on it, I don’t know that we would ever know if it did happen. I mean, they’re not paying any attention. They’re still not paying any attention. Sure, I mean, in the coal mining regions, for example, West Virginia, there are conflicts with management and with ownership. You would expect that, you know, they always have. But I don’t know that, I don’t know, I don’t know.
LL: So, they are literally forgotten?
JS: They weren’t forgotten by Trump. And one more thing and then we should, sort of, just end. The one thing that a lot of identity politics liberals cannot seem to get over is the high levels of support that Trump received from suburban women. Incredibly high, something like 52 percent suburban women voted for Trump. Now, how can you, from a certain perspective, can you get your mind around Trump and his comments about women and his, OK? Well, you ask women, like, why would you vote for, I mean, this is the hurdle of identity politics. You can’t explain this. You can’t take your identity politics very far. Because…
LL: And what is your explanation?
JS: Uh, they either think that, “oh, my stepmother and my mother voted for Trump.” They both think that, sure sure, he’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole. I mean, you know, they hate Hillary so much that it outweighs. You know, there’re a number of different ways of approaching it, but clearly politics filtered exclusively through the realm of identity and gender and race is a losing game. I mean, Trump has proved it. What else would you want to know? I mean, you had the first woman candidate president in the American history, and we had the openly misogynist guy, and he won!
LL: Thank you very much for your time.
JS: My pleasure. Sorry I talked about Trump so much.
LL: No problem.