I am Sara. I am 30 years old.
The way I get by does not fit in any official rubric; in fact, that’s true for the majority of people I know. For much of last year I was as an independent contractor, though I did have the status of “full-time employee” for three months. The result of these makeshift arrangements is that the relevant mechanisms for social welfare do not apply to me. I’m not a student, even though I study. I’m not employed, even though I work. I’m not unemployed because I have an income. I’m not retired and given how things are going I never will be.
Sara offered this account of her precarity during a brief bank occupation and teach-in on October 14, 2011. The next day activists seized the square in front of the Slovenian Stock Exchange, launching Occupy Slovenia. In many ways personal testimonials like Sara’s have become commonplace throughout the global uprisings that began in Tunisia and reverberated through the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Indeed, even Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation served to highlight his personal plight as a fruit seller, a plight that came to be seen as the embodiment of the corruption and hopelessness faced by a generation of Tunisians. In great numbers—if less dramatically—activists around OWS have shared personal accounts of their indebtedness, poverty, and frustration at public gatherings and online at the tumblelog “We Are the 99%.” While the movement in Ljubljana is closely linked to movements elsewhere—after all activists traveled to coordinating meetings in Tunis and Barcelona to learn from the struggles there before beginning their own encampment on the October 15, “Global Day of Action”—activists’ testimonials also built on local practices of reflecting on and politicizing personal experience that were developed during earlier migrant labor struggles. In this brief essay, I sketch this history and consider the significance of what I would characterize as a subjective turn within recent Slovene activist practice.
In her mid-thirties and politicized during the globalization protests of the early 2000s, it was Barbara who first directed me to links between activists’ testimony at the bank teach-in and earlier migrant labor organizing. “When we first organized the Invisible Workers of the World (IWW) and began to confront migrant working conditions in Slovenia,” she explained, “we faced an unexpected problem: the migrant labor system was so varied, so complicated, that I’m not even sure anyone within the relevant ministries had a complete overview of what was happening. What is more, there were so many workarounds that you couldn’t assume that the law provided much of a template for the actual conditions under which workers were laboring.” In response, activists like Sara and Barbara, many of whom had a tenuous foothold as academics or part-time researchers for local NGOs, developed a method of “militant investigation,” carried out where migrants congregated, especially company-owned dormitories, and focused on working and living conditions. In collaboration with migrants—the vast majority of whom were Bosnians who had shared with Slovenes a common Yugoslav passport until independence in 1991—they developed a fine-grained portrait of migrant workers’ precarity. A key conclusion, embodied in individual workers’ stories, was that the visa regime, which rendered workers wholly dependent on the firm to which both their residence and work permits were linked, played a decisive role in their exploitation.
“Militant investigation,” which emphasized the empowerment of migrants themselves to carry out research, began from the assumption that research creates its object of study as much as it reflects a pre-existing reality. In other words, through collaboration, activists and migrants developed common understandings about the migration regime but also contributed to the formation of a collective subject capable of challenging the very conditions they were investigating.
Building on this legacy, the bank teach in, like the cascade of subsequent direct actions, included activists who were themselves migrant laborers. Armin, for example, spoke of the daily frustrations of living with his wife and infant child in a 22-square meter apartment. But what had changed for activist researchers like Sara and her, Barbara explained, was that “we have begun to bend our methods back onto our own lived experience. We’ve begun to ask how the financialization that drove the building boom that employed so many Bosnian workers has also transformed our lives.” “By bringing migrants, underemployed young people, and those facing eviction together,” she continued, “we are trying to confront the banks and build a common struggle from the quite disparate experiences, from the splintered class composition that characterizes this moment.”
While the subjective turn can be traced to IWW’s practice of militant investigation, and the experiences of collective struggle it engendered, its embrace is, of course, also tied to its utility within movement today (Razsa 2012). As one activist who had been involved in the often fractious local activist scene during the globalization movement explained, asking that people speak from personal experience, that they begin from the ways they themselves have been affected, has helped activists to avoid “the kinds of abstraction that usually leads to sectarian conflict.” This same activist argued that there could be no better grounding for direct democracy than the knowledge of and demand for control over one's own daily life. What is more, by opening spaces to publicly discuss living conditions, the subjective turn has served to de-stigmatize poverty. As Irfan, who often answered one of the shared mobile phones of Occupy Slovenia, explained, “People who see our actions on TV relate these testimonies to their own experience and they call us asking for help, asking how they can get involved.”
As in the earlier IWW organizing, however, the implications of the subjective turn are not exhausted in efforts to, as Sara described it to me, “build connections and identifications through self-reflective research on one’s own conditions of life.” The subjective turn also involves producing individual and collective subjects who are prepared to confront these conditions, i.e. to occupy banks and seize public space (Razsa 2012). And through these collective experiences Occupy Slovenia expands such individual and collective capacities. “There is a clear trajectory," Barbara claimed, “of increasing willingness to invest our own bodies physically in the struggle and to open new conflicts as we try to seize back control of our lives. Just this weekend [March 16, 2012] activists opened a new front—directly blocking the eviction of a family because they were unable to pay their utility bills. Nineteen were forcibly removed and arrested. Far from being discouraged, we are emboldened by this direct experience of solidarity.”
Razsa, Maple 2012. "The Occupy Movement in Žižek's hometown: Direct democracy and a politics of becoming." American Ethnologist 39(2): 238-258.
Maple Razsa is Assistant Professor of Global Studies at Colby College. An anthropologist and filmmaker, he has directed four films, including most recently Bastards of Utopia (Documentary Educational Resources 2010). His research focuses on radical politics, activist media and the former Yugoslavia.