Installations, videos and projects in public space

by Oliver Ressler

Non-Capitalist Economies and the Postcommunist Transition

Ovidiu Tichindeleanu

1. When Joseph Beuys sent his Polentransport in 1981 to the Museum of Art in ?odz, containing about 700 works of art, the sense of his Eugen Loebl-inspired “revolution of concepts” was clear: to foster a Third Way, an alternative to both “western capitalism” and “eastern communism”. Beuys was searching for an alternative to the powers of money and (respectively) the state, looking for an “integral system” based on the fundamental human values of solidarity (mutual assistance), responsible equality and meaningful freedom. In his vision, the Third Way was to rise peacefully through a “non-violent revolution,” by a self-governing “new social movement.”[1] The point of the artist’s work, as a vehicle of social change, was not only the identification of the principles of a “new society of real socialism”, but the “consolidation of alternative economic and cultural enterprises.”

Some two decades later, in 2003, Oliver Ressler begun with an exhibition in Ljubljana his traveling series of installations and public space interventions called Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies.[2] By then, the main point of such artistic work had arguably become to counter the reinstalled “sacred cow” (to use Beuys’s words), the monologic law of the marketplace.

The context was different: the Cold War ended, Capitalism had won, and the socialist bloc had fallen. The general acceptance of the TINA doctrine (There-Is-No-Alternative) after the fall of the socialist bloc was arguably unprecedented in the entire history of capitalism, and it would hard to find a comparable historical moment when capitalism has been associated with “democracy” to such an extent. Moreover, the Third Way had become a reality, albeit twisted, radically different from Beuys’s aspirations. The “third way” and its main collective subject, the “civil society” (identified with anticommunist dissidents) had been instrumental in the demise of real socialism, but did not bring much liberation or emancipation. On the contrary, in the former socialist bloc, the civil society contributed to the ideological enclosure of postcommunism, especially through the new discourse of naturalization in which “‘natural’ society is pitted against the ‘unnatural’ impositions of the State.”[3] Here, while the State is taken to account for authoritarianism and identified with “Power”, civil society appears as the natural environment for “Democracy”. However, this latter image is a fiction, since the actual history of the formalization of civil societies in the former socialist bloc does not show a more “organic” representation of society, but on the contrary, a gradual limitation of the multitude of spontaneous social movements which emerged in the 1980s and early 1990s, into a restricted and rather elitist group of non-governmental organizations and leaders. Thus, in the cultural history of transition, the opposition between the state and civil society can be understood as the first enclosure of the postcommunist public sphere, which contributed to the elimination of informal social movements and independent cultural scenes from the field of visibility of the public sphere. All its good deeds notwithstanding, the formal civil society naturalized capitalocentrism (“free market” centrism) and eurocentrism (the epistemic privilege of the Western experience) in the former socialist bloc, in the postcommunist transition, by thematizing them as organic and practical principles needed for a “return to normality” after the “communist deviation”. The local colonization of these dominant cultural ideologies of transition happened in the discourse of the civil society in an even more obvious fashion than in the discourse of state apparatuses. The very concept of the “civil society”, as in the often-used expression “global civil society”, appeared to describe a “universal stage of development,” which was, however, de facto represented, sponsored and consolidated in an epistemic and materialist manner solely by the West. The resulting formalized civil society has become effectively a “third way”, opposed both to the “corrupted” formal political sphere and to the misgivings of the “ignorant” and disorganized masses. Namely, this “third way” separated a Western-minded spiritual elite in the local social body, one that claimed the post-1989 remade public space (and not the formal political sphere). Through its essential reliance on elite intellectuals and professional experts, the postcommunist civil society contributed thus to the elimination of the worker and of the common man from the postcommunist public spaces.

The cultural history of postcommunist transitions shows even the re-creation of a geopolitical reality based on the utopian “third way”: the value-region of “Central Europe”. Ralf Dahrendorf – who uncoincidentally talked about “postcapitalism” – already wrote a history of “Central-East Europe” in the very early 1990s. A geopolitical identity promoted by prominent dissidents and intellectuals such as Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik, Central Europe (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary) arguably represented an attempt to get closer to the West by getting rid of the “Eastern” attribute of the former socialist bloc during the Cold War. “Central Europe” identified, as it were, the “West” within the former socialist bloc, the more European populations, who were now returning to their “natural” place of belonging (the western Free World), after the fall of the artificial Iron Curtain. The idea of “Central Europe” – quickly adopted also in the western part of Romania – was cutting thus through the body of the former socialist “bloc” a new symbolical oriental difference which defined a new regional identity: European. Corroborated with the stages of integration of the various states from the former socialist bloc into the political structures of Europe, the postcommunist transition gave thus a new material and physical reality to the fundamental Eurocentric myth that all non-europeans can be considered pre-europeans. Put it shortly, contrary to the visions of artists, theorists and militant people, the Third Way emerged in postcommunism as a foundation for the local colonization of dominant ideologies of the modern world in longue durée. The Third Way did allow the development of political differences spanning a wide range between social-democracy, liberalism and neoconservatism. However, the centered liberalism of the Third Way did not allow, in the process of restructuring the postcommunist public spheres of the former socialist bloc, any investment in epistemic dignity given to alternatives to capitalism or to the Western modernity.

2. In between the two different sets of artistic gestures, separated by just about two decades, the task of the radical artist aspiring for social change seems to have shifted from the work of “consolidation” alluded by Beuys, to the work of evidence. The project Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies moved in a sense horizon that resisted but had to acknowledge the general domination of the word of order There-Is-No-Alternative. At the time, it may have seemed a wonder that the artist was able at all to put together such a rich panoply of non-capitalist and in the same time “non-communist” visions of economy and society. The exhibition offered the vision of a positive anti-capitalist episteme that had nothing to do with nostalgia, being rooted in a present with a concrete vision of the future. In the same time, it was obvious that the artist had to show more than one alternative. The postcommunist alternative economy and society had to be neither Capitalist, nor Communist, but a “Third Way” that multiplies itself into a multitude of thirdings. The alternative to the totality of capitalism and totalitarianism of communism had to be non-totalizing, non-essentialist, non-monologic.

However, in spite of the undeniable joys of inhabiting a plural reality, the project also evidenced a certain uneasiness deriving from its principled double rejection of totality. It was as if, in the condition of the disappearance from reality of the imperfect other-world of actual existing socialism, Oliver Ressler, the artist, had to prove the actual existence of a whole other-world, with visions and practices different to each other, yet radically differing in their togetherness from the monologic global grip of capitalism. The artist was in a paradoxical position: he worked within a new dialectical process that had overcome in its internal pluralistic logic the presupposition of the idea of totality, but which related nevertheless to capitalism as an existent totality. The work also emphasized the tendency of art to become an internalizing world in itself precisely when it actually manages to challenge the limits of capitalism. In this sense, it speaks to Brian Holmes’ recent argument that the “world of contemporary art” has not surmounted what Marx calls “alienation” (namely, the severing of a social relation), in spite of the number of brilliant works focusing in the last decades on the externalist problems of artistic products, relations and labor.[4]

Oliver Ressler succeeded in visualizing the complex alternative to capitalism with the help of no-less than sixteen video testimonies.[5] It is important that in his work the difference of non-capitalism keeps on becoming itself subject to difference, unfolding in a manifold of independent alternatives. In the experience of the exhibition, non-capitalism makes a difference firstly in relation to non-capitalism. The political gesture and most of the effort and creative capability of the artist seem also to be invested in the internal differentiation of the alternative world: a non-totalized immanence that unfolds many irreducible possibilities and realities. Upon entering the space of the installation, the visitor actually walks on the path of non-capitalist alternatives, via stepping on significant quotations laid across the floor of the exhibition like crisscrossing paths towards or from the testimony videos. The printed strips create the powerful image of a non-centralized structure which sustains the testimonies: another possible world. The work operates thus simultaneously at two levels, emphasizing the dramatic condition of the artist in postcommunism: art is not only a vehicle for social change (the expression of alternatives to capitalism), but the artist has the gigantic task to create also the context in which it is possible at all to articulate a general critique. And this is what makes it a work of art. What is more, the frame itself tends to be discursive, and becomes part of the work of art.

However, the more sense Alternative Economies makes as an alternative, the greater the relevance of Marx’s early observation: “Will the theoretical needs be immediate practical needs? It is not enough for thought to strive for realization, reality itself must strive towards thought.”[6]

3. The reality that ominously strives towards these important artworks is capitalism. As different as these subjective approaches may be, they have something in common at the epistemic level: the objective reality of the hegemony or domination of capitalism. The works point out that non-capitalist difference is real, rich and plural, but also that non-capitalist difference fails to open a world without capitalism. If I were to generalize and adapt in this context Luhmann’s concepts of first-order and second-order observation, one could argue that in the world of the “postcommunist condition”, the non-capitalist difference has kept on operating primarily on itself, captured, as it were, in a transition from first-order to second-order difference, that is, in a state of relative abstraction.

One can advance the hypothesis that the historical event of the fall of the socialist bloc, and the theoretical event of the postmodern caution against political totalitarianism and/or metaphysical essentialism are correlated. In other words, the “fear of totalisation” that characterized for the most part the affectivity of recent radical politics, critical philosophy and artistic practices, comes together in the rejection of totality as a synthetic conceptual tool. In other words, a new imperative has been at work in critical theory in the decades immediately preceding and following the fall of the socialist bloc: the alternatives to capitalism must not constitute together a totality, neither theoretically, nor historically – and much less politically. Paradoxically, the world of non-capitalist alternatives has to have no systemic unity, but is haunted by the implacable totality of capitalism, which at its turn is driven by the objective reality of capitalism as a global form of power. Consequently, alternative economies constitute a wounded immanence, a squandering realm of abundance, somewhat akin to Deleuze and Guattari’s cancerous body without organs – in a productive sense. This imperative undermines the mutual consolidation of differences (which would make possible a historical event), as well as the theoretical work at starting abstractions (which would make possible the embodiment of a real epistemic turn as condition for political change).

Political resistance needs to be premised on epistemic resistance, and Oliver Ressler’s work brings a great contribution to the necessary identification of non-hegemonic forms of knowledge and non-hegemonic forms of value production and exchange. The work also emphasizes the hyper-modern condition of postcommunism: not the lack of “class consciousness” (related to a supposed disappearance of the worker), but too much of it. Namely, a consciousness of resistance which is so self-conscious, that it never takes a break from work, focusing incessantly, to the point of exhaustion, on its own legitimation. And exhaustion to death, both physical and cognitive, has been a hallmark of the history of capitalism, which always depended on the cruel exploitation of wage labor as well as on the crueler exploitation of non-waged forms of labor. Namely – and with this we move on to explore the epistemic field opened by posing the problem of alternatives to capitalism – capitalism is not a historical form of organizing the global economy that tends to reduce all forms of labor to the wage-capital relationship. On the contrary, from its inception in the 16th century with the conquest of the Americas and the Atlantic trade, Western capitalism emerged as a form of global power that works by integrating completely different forms of labor, separated mainly by colonial and gender differences: waged labor, as well as non-waged labor (slavery, serfdom, housework, reciprocity etc). In other words, capitalism integrates accumulation with starvation, democracy with tyranny, free market with military intervention, debate with silencing, etc. As Boaventura de Sousa Santos put it, a society is not capitalist because all the social and economical relations are capitalist, but because the capitalist relations are determining how the economical and social relations existing in society work. Actually, some liberal thinkers also agree to this point, ever since Joseph Stiglitz pointed out that the free market works with a regime of non-transparent information.[7] Stiglitz’s “discovery” that the “free market” is “based on informational asymmetry” arguably brought the discipline of economics back into the traditionally Marxist perspective of “political economy.”[8] The main moral of Stiglitz’s “discovery” is that the invisible hand does not lead to an efficient allocation of resources. Consequently, there is no market equilibrium without external intervention, be it governmental or military. One could also recall Niklas Luhmann’s argument that what connects two “working” complex systems is a loose coupling, for if it would be a strong coupling, the respective systems would be in danger of collapsing one another. Similarly, non-capitalist forms of organizing power, labor and production are able to develop a loose autonomy all while existing and thriving, to “a reasonable degree”, under the capitalist form of global power.

Capitalocentrism, one of the dominant ideologies of postcommunism,[9] is a totalization that does not operate only by reduction (that is: through the tendential transformation of difference into sameness), but by producing and organizing enclosures of non-capitalist sectors which are given a loose autonomy. At a larger scale, capitalism centers all the previous forms of value production and labor around the wage-capital relationship and money-form, but it does not eliminate unpaid labor or non-capitalist forms of exchange. On the contrary, it keeps on creating such spaces of unpaid labor, more often delineated through colonial difference or gender difference: household labor, sweatshops, immigrant labor, forced labor have been and still are vital for the growth of global capitalism. Similarly, capitalist power did not operate in the postcommunist transition only through the negative force of violence and repression, but through the productive colonization of the spheres of social life and the colonization of the inner lifeworld. If real socialism itself allowed and actually fostered the formation of enclaves of bourgeois life (such as the institution of the nuclear family as a result of mass urbanization), but provided a horizon for the invention of non-bourgeois and non-capitalist forms of social life, the postcommunist transition of the former socialist bloc put all the processes of social exchange and value production under pressure to revolve around capital, even if this meant enforcing the non-capitalist character of certain enclaves. Acknowledging this has radical consequences for any theory of anticapitalist resistance. Without going here into detail, one can point out a number of “negative” elements organizing the capitalocentric postcommunist transition. These are reductive elements that are fostering traditional forms of resistance against capitalism: primitive accumulation (“strategic investors”, racketeering, pawnshops, the explosion of theft and murder in the former socialist bloc after 1989), the relentless neoliberal attack on health and education (i.e. the double-edged attack on the biological and cognitive human capital), the privatization of the commons, the uprooting of the labor force and many other harmful systemic phenomena. However, one could also point to “positive” enclosures of capitalist power in the postcommunist transition. Such enclosures have an essentially productive and non-reductive character, a harm against which is harder to develop alternatives and resistance, because they depend on fostering resistance to a reasonable degree: the creation of culture industries and institutions modeled explicitly after Western models, the expansion of public spaces, the dissemination of a positive affect for commodity fetishism and instant gratification, and more importantly the production of a new “civilized” local subject, who adheres self-willingly to “European” or “Western” behaviour and lifestyle, sometimes even when protesting against capitalism.

If the sense of the postcommunist transition is the top-to-bottom integration of Eastern governmentality into the order of Western governmentality,[10] the condition of postcommunism is such that the controlled proliferation of non-capitalist difference (including progressive alternative visions, but also fascist nationalism) is an essential part in the process of integration of the former socialist bloc into the system of global capitalism. If capitalism has never been a totality that operates only through reduction, but a “mode of production” in the sense of a power that grows through fragmentation, destruction and exhaustion, but also through the organization of relationships, then the image of capitalism as a purely negative power is itself a fetish of capitalism. As Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano has repeatedly emphasized, capitalism is a form of global power that has traditionally and systematically integrated non-capital-based forms of labor control. This also means that the implacable totality of capitalism cannot “completely and homogeneously disappear from the scene of history in order to be replaced by any equivalent.”[11] Consequently, the radical thinking of alternatives to capitalism depends on the development of an epistemic space of alternatives that identifies tactics of resistance in co-existence with capitalism as the basis of anti-capitalist politics.[12]

One can refer to Pavel Braila’s video Homesick Cuisine (2006),[13] the work of an artist who did not study Fine Arts, starting from the margins of arts as an amateur photographer. In Homesick Cuisine, the traditional dishes of sarmale and placinte are cooked by the artist’s parents and sent from Chisinau to Berlin in a raffia bag through the Eurolines bus – both staples of the Romanian and Moldovan postcommunist west-bound migration experience. Here, capitalism does not disappear, but becomes witness in a corner, unveiling the invisible side of the iceberg: a flourishing system of exchange following and yet escaping the legal routes of capitalist trade and the flows of labor force. The mass phenomenon of postcommunist immigration evidences a developing double-consciousness that challenges the hegemony of nation-state and any pure imaginaries of nationhood precisely as it is tempted to identify with symbols of nationalism and/or Europe. The reality that strives towards the thought of sarmale in Berlin is that of a gigantic chain of systems of exchange, based on human capital, not money, but in co-existence with capitalism and assimilation. However, one does not need the East European immigrant experience to show such alternative networks: one can point to the postcommunist (i.e. post-1989) emergence of Mitfahrzentrale and Mitfahrgelegenheit, after 1997 as institutionalized forms of cooperative economy in capitalist Germany, of the remarkable Clubture, a network of participatory exchange in the cultural sector in Croatia,[14] and to a host of other independent cultural groups and cooperatives. It is not hard to find such examples spread all throughout the current capitalist world. They all are under the pressure of enclavization, but they proliferate.

What is more, alternative economies and tactics of resistance in co-existence can be identified in a systemic (but not systematic) manner precisely in the recent experience of real socialism. To paraphrase Fidel Castro, the biggest error was to believe somebody knew what socialism was,[15] especially from a leftist perspective. Maybe the most important contribution of real socialism to this world has been the proliferating alternative universe of other-economies: informal speculative markets (bazaar, black market, video market etc.), sustainable food and self-sufficient living systems, friendship economies, long-term savings and investments (house building and reparation, etc.), zero-interest borrowings, workplace solidarity, barter economies, collectible values, gift economies, gypsy banks, and the list goes on. Considered in their own field of immanence, this multitude of alternative forms cannot be reduced to an “informal capitalist market” or “survival economy”, because the value of their transactions is based on community as capital, even when money is circulated, and on a general subordination of economy to social life. However, the epistemic wealth and political value of such experiences has been made invisible by the dominant postcommunist ideologies of anticommunism, eurocentrism and capitalocentrism, which marked both the left and right political thought. The integration of the former socialist bloc into the capitalist world has both annihilated (as a social practice and cultural memory) and recuperated (in a commodified form) such popular economic practices of real socialism. The generalized rhetoric of the “sacrificed generation” and the willingness to lose lives evidenced by the implementation of “shock therapy” and “lustration” policies are just the most obvious signs of the postcommunist rush to destroy the cultural memory of real socialism. This elitist anathemization of the past has left people with no other history than the postcommunist transition (which includes the museum of anticommunism) and with no other cultural life than the television and the newly formed culture industry.[16] However, the work towards an epistemic transformation beyond capitalism can only start from actual historical experiences, not from zero, and neither from the museal workings of the anticommunist industry: only by considering the real lives and stories of people as a relevant site of experience, and by focusing on the ongoing processes of overcoding, totalization and resistance. The bottom line is that underneath state capitalism or distributive consumerism, and in explicit resistance against these arts of governing, the recent historical experience of real socialism abounds in modes of producing non-capitalist value, and especially in acts of resistance without infrastructure.[17]

In spite of being a time of permanent and normalized crisis, the postcommunist transition unfolded in an increasingly monologic and linear way, subsuming people, institutions and spheres of social life to the implacable totality of capitalism as a form of global power that was arbitrarily identified with “democracy” and the “free world.” In order to foster positive resistance against this form of power, the vision of alternative economics, understood here as the open-ended opposition to the great limit of the modern life (capitalism as a global system of enclosures), has to be liberated first from the dominant axes of anticommunism, eurocentrism and capitalocentrism, and, on a larger geographical scale, from the modern/colonial frame of rationality that created in the first place the idea of the impossibility of co-existence of capitalism and non-capitalism. The ideology of There-Is-No-Alternative (TINA) is based on the postulation of the impossibility of co-existence, which makes capitalism an implacable totality towering over the vision of its own demise. The non-capitalist alternative can become real only by contesting paradoxically this postulate, while acknowledging the actual historical experience as a valid point of departure. Only then, capitalism stops being an incommensurable totality, only then size and materiality can be finally added to the equation, in order to show the capitalist economy as a finite form in the universe of daily economical transactions. The vital process of democratic de-capitalization can start with the vision of global capitalism as a still existent reality, but finite in scale, means, geography and power. In this sense, the powerful TINA itself (a reality completely committed to the capitalist turn), quickly reveals itself to be a reality that hangs by such a thin thread that the smallest event can turn it around or dismantle it. The historical experience of real socialism provided such an event, however not as much in the arts of governing, as in the historical experience of people. One can make a difference to capitalism simply by seriously considering capitalism as something co-existent – a radical gesture which was the most popular epistemic assumption of real socialism.

Initial version published in the catalogue of the exhibition Over the Counter. The Phenomena of Post-socialist Economy in Contemporary Art, curated by Eszter Lázár and Zsolt Petrányi, Mücsarnok Kunsthalle, Budapest 18 June 2010 – 19 September 2010. You can contact the author at