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“Protest for Production”: Fighting the Ethnic Authoritarian Model of Governance in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina

Theory & ResearchTo be in protest for production is a political axiom that cuts through the triad of insecurity-poverty-trauma. It has resonated powerfully across communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, forging links between workers, students, war veterans, artists, and activists that continue to this day

The photograph above, captured in late 1991, depicts labourers protesting on the streets of Sarajevo, the capital of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a constituent state of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The banner held by the workers states: “Workers yes, Warriors no!” The severe crisis alluded to in the banner is a consequence of the IMF’s austerity policies enforced in Yugoslavia throughout the 1980s. After President Nixon removed the dollar from the gold standard, US investors had the opportunity to use their low interest rates and liquid funds to seek the highest returns on their investments globally. Low-interest dollars were available for US investors to invest worldwide, which included in the former Yugoslavia. By accepting low-interest loans from Western European countries and the United States, Yugoslavia became bound to a post-Fordist neoliberal policy that ultimately proved to be unsustainable. When President Reagan decided to increase interest rates and push down wages, which in 1980 caused a severe recession in the US, Yugoslavia was one of the countries that struggled the most to meet the new repayment schedules on the loans it had taken during the previous ten years.

In the 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan completely refocused the remaining components of Bretton Woods — now reduced to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — and turned them into missionaries of neoliberal, post-Fordist ideology. Yugoslavia was forced to adopt austerity measures and cut wages and benefits. During the 1980s, Yugoslavia faced challenges with a surplus on the current account, essential for foreign debt servicing and base money creation. However, this surplus also contributed to excess demand, necessitating measures like reduced bank lending, income policy intervention, and exchange rate policy to curb inflation. Unfortunately, federal governments failed to implement these solutions, leading to fatal consequences in 1986 with interest rates lowered, floating exchange rates abolished, and prices frozen. In May 1988, attempts to control inflation proved futile due to repeated mistakes. The continuation of expansionary monetary policies in 1989, unrestricted credit, and financing the budget deficit all exacerbated the economic woes, culminating in hyperinflation by the last quarter of 1989 (Žižmond 1992). These austerity measures and cuts provoked widespread workers’ strikes in Yugoslavia in the mid and late 1980s, unrest that eventually degenerated into ethnic conflict and genocide (Lowinger 2009). Yugoslavia’s economic system was organized on the basis of self-management, in which workers, together with the growing managerial class, participated in decision-making on production and all issues relevant to the functioning of enterprises, which was done through workers’ plenums and councils (radnički zborovi and radnički savjeti). Workers were the backbone of Yugoslav society: working people (radni narod) was the constitutional category in the self-governing Yugoslav society, where property relations were defined as socially-owned property (društvena svojina), belonging to everyone and no one at the same time, the decisions on which were taken by the political subject: Yugoslav working people. Workers were militant and highly organized through strong trade unions, and labour rights were of a high standard. In addition to work stoppages, the strikes of the 1980s demanded political reforms, focusing on the effectiveness of self-management in representing workers’ interests and the gap between producers and managers in Yugoslav society (Cvek, Ivčić, and Račić 2019, 46). 

Between 1988 and 1990, a series of IMF-dictated privatization reforms were implemented, introducing new forms of ownership that shifted the collective rights and responsibilities of workers in decision-making processes to the individual rights and responsibilities of managers and new company owners (Uvalić 2018, 43; Pepić 2022). In reality, this meant the end of workers' self-management and the transition to workers as shareholders. This first privatization was never fully implemented: economic nationalism and protectionism prevailed, and the dire financial straits that loan repayments and state-enforced austerity imposed on working families led to increasingly militant and violent labour disputes and strikes throughout the former Yugoslavia. And while these disputes were initially multi-ethnic, with anger directed at federal bureaucrats in the capital Belgrade, as the decade wore on the symptom of social conflict took on the form of an ethnic minority problem, with some union leaders beginning to direct the wrath of their rank and file against ethnic minorities in their immediate surroundings.[1]

In this sense, the war against Yugoslavia in the 1990s could legitimately be interpreted as an outgrowth of a conflict between organized labour and neoliberal policymakers in Belgrade in the 1980s. But it could also legitimately be interpreted as a consequence of the failure to satisfactorily resolve the global crisis of diminishing returns on investment, the first signs of which appeared in the late 1960s (Lough and Arsenijević 2016). And from this perspective, we can see how the same forces that produced the transition from Fordism to a post-Fordist regime of social, cultural, political, and economic regulation also produced the economic destruction and subsequent war in the former Yugoslavia. In the late 1980s the Yugoslav republics began an uneven transition to capitalism, but what was common to all the republics was that the newly formed ethno-nationalist elites were the ones leading the transition, using the anger and dispossession of the workers to strengthen ethnic nationalism. A section of the workers was aware that the newly-formed ethno-nationalist political parties were manipulating the workers’ revolt, but by 1991 Slovenia and Croatia, two Yugoslav republics, had already seceded from the Yugoslav federation and war was raging in Croatia, with the workers being mobilized for that war. With the de facto end of self-management, what remained was the destruction of the political subject — the working people and the socially-owned property. The wars against Yugoslavia were wars to execute the working class and to plunder the socially-owned property for the capital accumulation of the newly formed ethno-nationalist elites.  

War, the Dayton Peace Agreement, and the Postwar Legacy in Bosnia and Herzegovina

It did indeed come to pass that workers became warriors. In the 1992–95 war, the newly-elected ethno-nationalist elites mobilized the working class to carry out the final stage of the counter-revolution: the war against Yugoslavia and the attempt to eradicate the anti-fascist revolution in which the socialist Yugoslavia was forged. These elites transformed the working people into members of ethnic groups, distributed the weapons among the workers to kill one another in the war, and then, at the extreme point of genocide, the workers buried the bodies in mass graves. In the war, the elites amassed huge wealth and became oligarchs, who still continue to profit from the mass graves — both the discovered and the clandestine ones. These graves are the foundations for the ethnic manipulation of fear and grief. Following the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in December 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina lay in ruins, desperately in need of international economic assistance and infrastructural support. Under the now thoroughly entrenched post-Fordist regulatory regime, the only aid that international actors could offer would have to be delivered through private economic channels. The World Bank and the IMF helped to legitimize an oligarchy of private entrepreneurs who, with their new wealth, had no difficulty in corrupting and then using Bosnia and Herzegovina’s governing institutions to enrich themselves even further. All this, of course, was sanctioned by the post-Fordist cultural imperative that private agents — even corrupt private agents — would operate far more efficiently and effectively than public institutions ever could or would. Once the oligarchy had bought their way into public institutions, it made sure that they did not operate efficiently and effectively by filling all the vacancies and even creating new ones, which of course it filled with less-than-fully-qualified friends, thereby establishing a clientelist network and a system of patronage. The Dayton Peace Agreement was a good illustration of this, as it de facto recognized the wartime division of the country, and created an unwieldy political power-sharing structure with two political and administrative entities, 13 different parliaments, and over 180 different ministries. For a country of 3.6 million people, this is the horror of peace, where postwar “reconstruction” has forced people to accept their helplessness and retreat into their ever-smaller private spaces. The dismemberment of public space and the silencing of a public language that could speak of equality have been deepened by the NGO compradors through their programmes and projects obsessed with identity politics.

When the impoverished surviving workers returned to their factories, they found them devalued and sold to new oligarchs. Once the heart of Yugoslav heavy industry, Bosnia and Herzegovina was deindustrialized following this pattern: first a factory would be devalued through lack of investment and neglect; then receivership would be declared, leaving workers stranded with years of unpaid salaries; a private investor would buy the factory at a ridiculously cheap price, making promises to restart production, a commitment which would quickly be reneged on. Ultimately, a factory would be stripped of all valuable assets — including all the monitoring and safety systems for hazardous materials — workers would lose their jobs, until abandoned toxic waste, openly apparent and deliberately concealed, was all that was left, unguarded and leaking its deadly poison into communities. 

Deindustrialization in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and indeed throughout Yugoslavia, was shaped by the increasingly authoritarian mode of social, cultural, and economic regulation, a comprehensive US-led regime, which George Steinmetz has termed “authoritarian post-Fordism”. This regime amalgamates two political approaches that characterized the post-Fordist mode of capital accumulation and regulation, which were formerly divided between the domestic mode, which was relatively democratic and open, and a foreign imperialist mode which was authoritarian and closed (Steinmetz 2003). Through the authoritarian regime, organized labour was destroyed and a self-regulatory mode introduced and fostered amongst the labour force, characterized by willing self-domination and the workers’ fight for violent domination of others. When, in the early 2000s, workers united in protests against the “corrupt privatization” and the destruction of the factories, special police forces were sent to beat them up and arrest them. With organized labour in disarray, privatization and deregulation are ideologically represented as a quasi-objective, and necessary for growth, which further contributes to capital’s systemic imperatives to maximize returns on investment. For industry in Bosnia and Herzegovina, this meant an “open season” scenario to sate the hunger of capital, in which the name of the game was not to drive down the production costs, but rather to purchase factories cheaply and to extract value from them. The perceived “value” lay not only in stripping them of assets, but also in abandoning and hiding toxic waste — itself now a source of value (Arsenijević 2022). 

“We Are Hungry in Three Languages”

Alternative text is missing.
“We are hungry in three languages”

In February 2014, Bosnia and Herzegovina once again dominated the global news, this time with images of huge protests across its cities, and prominent images of burning government buildings. This popular revolt started in Tuzla on 5 February 2014, where workers of several factories, after three years of smaller factory strikes and public hunger strikes, were then organizing mass protests in front of a regional government building. The banner above reads: “We are hungry in three languages”. This formulation is precise: for almost 20 years, international “peacebuilding”, “stabilization”, and “development”, coupled with international and local academic and NGO project-oriented work, were obsessed with the fetishization of ethnicity and the entrenchment of the consociational principle of power-sharing among three ethnic groups. For 20 years, they had completely disregarded a widening socio-economic inequality. In deindustrialized zones, such as Tuzla and Zavidovići, unemployment was rampant — according to the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), youth unemployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina stood at 60 percent, the highest in Europe and the third highest in the world (Macrotrends n.d.).

In postwar Bosnia, the local ethno-nationalist elites, with the support of international partners, have established and upheld a model of governance for a population traumatized by war and living in poverty. This is governance through insecurity-trauma-poverty. Governance through insecurity seems to proffer a continuance of a minimum of social assurance whilst, simultaneously, wielding the constant threat of instability and conflict. Fear, anxiety, and hopelessness are mobilized by governance through insecurity to promote particularization through enforced expulsions: of industry, of people, of ecosystems. This weakens the capacity for communal solidarity and emancipatory communal action (Lorey 2015). Governance through trauma is maintained through so-called “transitional justice”, which decontextualizes and further depoliticizes the political origins of the violence of war and genocide. The top-down transitional justice approach promotes a multiculturalist apartheid and produces perpetual victims, and the “demoralized subject of human rights” (Pupavac 2005). Governance through poverty operates under the guise of “growth”, which claims to offer jobs and economic security. Its mechanism is inclusion of citizens through exclusion. The main aim of governance through poverty is to manage low-income populations and train them to become at least passive, and at best cooperative subjects of the market (Soss, Fording, and Schram 2011). At the core of this governance through poverty lies the creation and the promotion of what Wendy Brown calls “sacrificial citizenship”; as the valorization of sacrifice for a greater good (Brown 2016). The February 2014 protesters targeted this model of governance through the following: their fightback against police violence, their demands, and the establishment of popular assemblies — plenums — that were organized across cities, according to the principle of direct democracy. These demanded the following of regional governments: to end corruption; to fight the rising criminalization of protests; and most importantly, to continue their political leverage of the ongoing threat of the protests. The protest was a reminder of the right and the obligation of war-time survival — which was subsequently criminalized — “to fire back when fired upon”. The right to fight back when attacked and to use the threat of violence is a key lesson of worker-led protests.

The Dita Factory: Where Unbribable Life Is Produced

In October 2012, workers at the Dita detergent factory in Tuzla erected barricades in front of their factory to prevent the stripping of assets and the closure of the plant, as had been demanded by the ongoing privatization process. Their move was unprecedented: all the other factories around Dita, once a huge industrial complex, had already been stripped of their assets and closed down. Dita stood in the middle of a barren landscape of a few scattered factory ruins. The Dita workers were determined to prevent the dismantling of the factory, which they called “home”. Their industrial action was in pursuit of justice: their demands included the prosecution of those involved in the corrupt privatization of their factory and the recovery of 44 months of unpaid salaries and other remuneration owed to them. The organization of the factory occupation took the form of the 1992–95 wartime defence: a base camp was set up in front of the factory and a 24-hour guard was established. The breakthrough of this workers’ occupation was in the way it was conceived and organized: they were not on strike to stop production, but “in protest for production”. To be “in protest for production” was a genuinely new political intervention in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina. By occupying the factory, the Dita workers decolonized the factory and took control of the means of production (Arsenijević 2014).

To be in protest for production is a political axiom that cuts through the triad of insecurity-poverty-trauma. It has resonated powerfully across communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, forging links between workers, students, war veterans, artists, and activists that continue to this day. The workers’ action goes beyond a mere strike, in that it draws the contours of political action. Production here is not a vague glorification of just mere work; it is the production of a different possibility, a human action for the sake of “living labour”, not for the sake of a “mere worker”. It is, therefore, on the side of a productive life that nurtures and expands the capacities and conditions for life to flourish, not merely to survive in a protracted death. This is what I call an unbribable life, as a life that refuses to be corrupted and bought off in the face of a politics that seeks to desensitize such a life to the workings and effects of the terror of corrupt privatization. It is a life that is not individualized, a life that enacts its refusal to be bribed in its demand and insistence on the politics of equality for all. This is a step from being a victim to being a political subject. The etymological roots of the term “bribe” convey its essence: originating from “a gift”, specifically “bit, piece, crumb; morsel of bread given to beggars” (Etymonline.com). A life characterized as unbribable involves cultivating an intersubjective commitment to abstain from engaging in political life akin to a political beggar, who receives one’s own political participation as a mere “crumb”. Organizing unbribable life means organizing its politically productive and emancipatory rage, which asserts as primary the notion and practice of social well-being and social care for all.



Arsenijević, Damir (2014), Unbribable Bosnia: The Fight for the Commons, Baden-Baden: Nomos.

——— (2022), “Waste Colonialism in Bosnia and Herzegovina: The War-Time Logic Continues”, LeftEast, 4 January, available at https://lefteast.org/waste-colonialism-in-bosnia-and-herzegovina-the-war-time-logic-continues/. Last accessed on 15 March 2024.

Brown, Wendy (2016), “Sacrificial Citizenship: Neoliberalism, Human Capital, and Austerity Politics”, Constellations, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 3–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8675.12166.

 Cvek, Sven, Snježana Ivčić, and Jasna Račić (2019), Borovo u štrajku: rad u tranziciji 1987. – 1991. Zagreb: Baza za radničku inicijativu i demokratizaciju.

Etymonline.com. Bribe. Douglas Harper. 18 March 2024.

Gligorov, Vladimir (1994), Why Do Countries Break Up? The Case of Yugoslavia, Upsala: Upsala Studies on Eastern Europe.

Lorey, Isabell (2015), State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, London: Verso.

Lowinger, Jake (2009), “Economic Reform and the ‘Double-Movement’ in Yugoslavia: An analysis of Labor Unrest and Ethno-Nationalism in the 1980s”, PhD dissertation, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University.

Lough, Joseph, and Damir Arsenijević (2016), “Tropes of War—creating a Model Precarious Labourer for US Military Bases”, Društvene i humanističke studije, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 165–84, available at http://www.dhs.ff.untz.ba/index.php/home/article/view/9. Last accessed on 15 March 2024.

Macrotrends (n.d.), “Bosnia Youth Unemployment Rate 1991-2023”, available at https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/BIH/bosnia/youth-unemployment-rate. Last accessed on 15 March 2024.

Pepić, Anđela (2022), “Privatizacija i radničke borbe na evropskoj periferiji: primjer industrijskih giganata u Bosni i Hercegovini 1989-2020”, PhD dissertation, University of Banja Luka, available at https://fedora.unibl.org/fedora/get/o:2569/bdef:Content/get. Last accessed on 15 March 2024.

Pupavac, Vanessa (2005), “The Demoralised Subject of Global Civil Society”, The Global Civil Society: Contested Futures, edited by Gideon Baker and David Chandler, London: Routledge, pp. 52–68.

Steinmetz, George (2003), “The State of Emergency and the Revival of American Imperialism: Toward an Authoritarian Post-Fordism”, Public Culture, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 323–45. https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-15-2-323

Soss, Joe, Richard C. Fording, and Sanford F. Schram (2011), Disciplining The Poor, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Uvalić, Milica (2018), “The rise and fall of market socialism in Yugoslavia”, contribution to the project of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC RI) “Inequalities, Economic Models and the Russian October 1917 Revolution in Historical Perspective”,20 March, available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331223694_The_Rise_and_Fall_of_Market_Socialism_in_Yugoslavia. Last accessed on 15 March 2024.  

Žižmond, Egon (1992), “The collapse of the Yugoslav economy”,Soviet Studies, vol. 44, no. 1, pp.101–12.https://doi.org/10.1080/09668139208411996.


  1. 1

    As Vladimir Gligorov notes, during the 1980s, three key disputes dominated the Yugoslav political landscape: privatization, social inequality, and ethnic justice. Although the privatization of state and social property was not initially planned, concerns arose about the possibility of such a move in the reforms. Apprehensions were heightened by indications of privatizing state-owned auto firms and the potential establishment of private enterprises in the processing industry and trade. Opposition to these potential plans became a central theme of the student unrest in 1968. Marxists associated with the Praxis journal also criticized market tendencies and the growing influence of the middle class. The second dispute focused on social inequality, with demographic changes, urbanization, and industrialization contributing to hostilities over differences in wages and income distribution. Unclear motivations for investing in the growth of enterprises led to a tendency toward borrowing, becoming a significant issue during the crisis. The third dispute concerned the fair distribution of benefits and costs among republics and ethnicities. The divergent approaches of the Serbian and Croatian leadership to market reforms were reflected in issues related to the foreign exchange regime, with ethnic interests often prevailing over ideas of liberalization. These conflicts led to the abandonment of reforms and a shift to a contribution system to the federal budget, de facto introducing a fixed exchange rate in inflationary conditions (Gligorov 1994). 

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