No More Open Bars: NGOs, Neoliberalism and the Creative Alternative


Recently, I was asked to partake on a panel at the Grantmaker’s Foundation Eastern Forum in Vienna, Austria, to talk about public space in Eastern Europe. In the spring, I had written an article about the Tbilisi Fabrika project, inspired by the gentrification of Brooklyn. I was arranged to speak along with the CEO of the Ajara Group, which co-owns Fabrika. Similar to my colleague at the magazine, I was taken aback by the fact that any establishment institution would take interest in our work. Nonetheless, a free trip is a free trip.

Arriving in Vienna, I quickly checked into my hotel and headed to the opening of the conference. Observing the conference lineup, it became rather apparent that I would be only one of only two journalists speaking, and most likely the only one that did not have a sizeable grant from the European Union. Naturally, I wore an Adidas jumper to affirm my countercultural credentials in this sea of suits. I also took swift advantage of the open bar. When it comes to payment, Post Pravda is a bit like a Soviet factory circa 1985: an open bar is an opportunity not to be passed up.

The opening speaker was Jasmila Žbanić, who directed the devastatingly profound film Grbavica, which has long been one of my favourites. Before she was due to speak, we were treated to the opening remarks from a (beardless) Andrea Pirlo-doppelganger named Boris Marte from the ERSTE Foundation. Amidst the usual pleasantries, he spoke about how the neoliberal narrative, principally built upon European Union expansion, democratization, and marketization for the post-socialist states, had seen a mass rejection in recent years.

The optimism of the initial post-1989 years had morphed into dismaying horror at the sight of Vladimir Putin ridding Russia of most of its meaningful opposition, the elections of nationalist, illiberal governments in Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic, and the ongoing war in Ukraine. The promised linear progress towards “Western style” governing, had gone astray. Furthermore, this narrative of some vague notion of “Europeanization” had lost its popular appeal. The East didn’t want to be the West anymore. The “End of History” turned out to just be the title of one chapter to be followed up by something far more contested. The promise of Westernization for the post-socialist states had grown stale and unpersuasive. The challenge was to create a counter narrative to the parochial politics that was growing to dominate the region.

Within the conversations with many of the other conference attendees, what appeared to be the common cause for these resurgent nationalist movements in the post-socialist regions was a failure to contain these pre-existing tendencies. The nationalism embodied by the government of Viktor Orban and the Polish Law and Justice Party stems from longstanding ideologies that merely stayed dormant during the regressive communist era and the euphoria of the post-1989 years. What seemed lost upon them, however, was the fact that this belief in the supremacy of neoliberal governance had created the conditions for nationalism to gain legitimacy and traction within mainstream politics.

Supporters of the neoliberal vision for the post-socialist states trumped in the post-1989 years not because of their persuasion but because of the lack of opposition to their narrative. While markets were being deregulated throughout the post-socialist region, it was done without opposition. It occured without any counter narrative to the neoliberal vision that reduced many to poverty and contributed to massive economic inequality. Neoliberalism did not look to provide vibrancy and debate but to totally replace socialism with an equal level of dominance. As Polish sociologist Sławomir Sierakowski argued about this period in Poland,

The choice, as in many countries in the region, was not between left and right, but between right and wrong. And the difference between right and wrong is not a democratic difference. It doesn’t produce a real choice. It doesn’t produce two, three or four legitimate options. And if it doesn’t produce choice, it won’t produce participation.

As a result, when this vision of open markets and democracy fails, the only alternative vision to fill the void is the opposite of illiberalism and crony capitalism.

Socialism was viewed as an unnatural derailment of the region’s development. Returning to capitalism was viewed as a return to normality. As a consequence, Western actors did not find it necessary to support a localized vision for the post-1989 years. Instead, they preferred to operate within a right/wrong axis, where they utilized a distinct vocabulary of apolitical language such as “civil society building”, “democratization” etc. They attempted to circumvent a political conversation, while at the same time propagating a highly ideological agenda. It sought to normalize and entrench a neoliberal agenda that greatly contributed to inequality and disenfranchisement throughout the post-socialist region. Speaking about the post-1989 years, Kristen Ghodsee argued,

Universal strategies and one-size-fits-all solutions were enthusiastically exported all over the globe. Some of these were concepts that originated in progressive struggles for social justice–human rights, participation, women’s rights, and gender. It looked like the victory of ‘the people’ (or ‘civil society’ as it came to be known) over states; indeed, the ’90s was the decade of the nonstate actor, the NGO … However, these global interventions of the supposedly post-ideological age were deeply ideological.

The overall result of this one-size-fits-all neoliberalism was not just a lack of opposition and economic inequality, but the conditions where one could only be an expert if they operated within a similar epistemic structure as Western actors. It created an asymmetrical relationship between those in the West and local populations that made it impossible for local narratives to flourish; something which could have offered more radical, yet salient, narratives to the sterile neoliberal ideology that continues to be promoted.

In searching for an alternative contemporary narrative, it seems rather obvious that looking at major centers of creativity and resistance to oppression would be a logical area to start. Although hardly new, throughout the post-socialist world there has been a flourishing creative class that is only starting to garner attention in Western media over the past couple years. Dubbed the highly problematic title of “The New East,” throughout the post-socialist world there has been a growth of an unassembled group of artists, musicians, designers, and other activists that have looked to give voice beyond the confines typically enabled by Western actors. Within their work, we are given some insight of a narrative that goes beyond the dichotomy of neoliberalism/illiberalism but a progressive localized narrative that is forward thinking.

There are a myriad of examples of different artists helping to contribute to this narrative, however the artist most obviously embodying of a progressive alternative is Georgian fashion designer Irakli Rusadze and his label Situationist. Rusadze’s work is imbued in his native Georgian circumstances, with the country’s flag placed at the center of one of his most celebrated pieces. He does not give into cheap nationalism, though. Rather, he speaks about how the aspirations of Georgia for freedom mirrors his own desire to be free of constraint. In doing so, he co-opts nationalist symbols to speak of a more intersectional notion of freedom.

Known for being inspired by the styles that first emerged during the post-1991 period in Georgia, his fashion does not rest on nostalgia. It instead looks to reconcile the past with the future by finding inspiration from that particular era while merging it with feminism. He regularly noted his main inspiration as being Georgian women who struggled throughout the darkest period of the 90’s and has stated that his clothing is “..not really about the shape of the body; it’s about the shape of the personality”, as a protest against beauty standards. He has collaborated with Tbilisi nightclub BASSIANI, which has actively looked to provide a queer-friendly atmosphere despite rampant homophobia, and also challenges draconian drug laws. His work in conjunction with a number of different artists has done far more in galvanizing and giving identity to a progressive politics in Georgia than any Western organization operating in Georgia, many of which are largely linked to the previous Saakashvili regime.

Whether it is Belarusian music group Šuma, who strive to operate in Belarusian, or Russian photographer Sergei Stroitelev’s work, recalling Soviet brotherhood and migrants in contemporary Russia, there is a growing organic and radical, grassroots critique of the power dynamics of the post-socialist reality, along with a vision for the future. Whereas Western actors treated the collapse of socialism as a moment of complete restart dictated by so-called enlightened elites, post-socialist artists look to bridge their socialist heritage, the trauma of deregulation, and their aspiration for the future. In doing so, they can present a radical alternative to the dehumanizing aspects of capitalism and the stagnation of illiberalism.

Significantly, this expression of creativity that rejects the two dominant paradigms is being done at a grassroots level, with almost no state or NGO support. It is emerging from working and middle class individuals who find inspiration through the pitfalls of capitalism and maximize its limited opportunity for growth. They exist as a creative class, not in some post-industrialized fashion, but much more similar to what Gramsci would refer to as “organic intellectuals”; for their ability to articulate what the masses cannot themselves. Although only recently have they begun to accrue any measure of social capital – largely thanks to the openness of the web – they have done so outside the domain of Western organizations and institutions that were intended – theoretically – to support these sort of individuals, who challenge the status quo. What is seen in their increasing popularity and ability to articulate a critique of the dominant strains of thought is that they demand far greater attention for their artistic merit but equally, their ideological foundations.

It is my basic hope that as time passes more attention will be directed towards the likes of Bosnian label Hvala Ilija, who confront Balkan masculinity, Belarusian artist Alexey Shlyk, who celebrates the ingenuity of the post-Soviet generation, the writings of Anastasia Fedorova, and Kyiv club night CXEMA, which looks to imagine a youthful and inclusive post-Maidan reality for Ukraine. With the continuing anxiety regarding nationalist movements throughout the world, these artists exist as a reminder that the hopes and aspirations of the post-socialist countries will only be fulfilled by those that will live with the ramifications long after Western states and NGOs decide to find a new laboratory for their neoliberal agenda. For all the open bars that the EU and USAID might provide, my excitement remains with fellas making me pay for my own drinks.