False binaries: A cautionary tale

This is the fourth article in a global series about philanthropic responses to COVID-19 and its effects, which was produced in partnership with The Alliance Magazine. This was part of the SIX Funders Node Year on Power programme.

This article has been written by Djurdja Trajković and Galina Maksimović, from the Reconstruction Women’s Fund in Serbia.

Anyone who has ever been part of a long struggle knows that we are running a marathon. This commonsensical core of any narrative works sometimes as an argument – we insist on the shortages of ‘project oriented’ philanthropy- , as an excuse – things cannot change over night-, a cautionary emblem – we have realistic expectations-, an awakening – no one has ever changed the world without a collective long struggle-, and as a tool of becoming part of that history, network, and, finally, a narrative that reproduces itself: marathons we are running, indeed. It seems to us, observing and participating from a liminal space such as Serbia is, during the Covid19 crisis, that to this long tradition of plurality of meaning, we could add a cautionary tale as a means to start a conversation on the tension between the newest binary: ‘economy or life’. The perspective we assume is the one of the funders who have been dedicated to a specific task, one of supporting a feminist platform against nationalism, militarism, and racism that crosses the question of economy but troubles it.

During our ongoing crisis, we could hear globally from our respective governments the mantra that economy cannot stop even if and when human life is at stake. But the choice within the binary (either/or) is a false, and potentially harmful one. Why so? Life, human or not, is crossed by economy but it is not reducible to economy. Even so, economy in this mantra becomes some abstract entity devoid of any reference to the very (non)human life and flourishing that depends on it. We all agree that nothing in the economy itself is destructive except the relation that it creates with its Other, in this case, life itself. Thus, what we have in the false choice is really a relation that it builds through a deeper antagonism: a certain kind of economy that wastes human life in order to succeed. More importantly, the binary has pervasive power since it gears and guides perception that consequently, to name just one possible effect, directs policy and resources. For many countries around the world, including our own country of Serbia, the economy/life antagonism resembles older war-like narratives. 

For example, it is not the case that the emerging economic crisis is spectacular news in Serbia. The past three decades were marked by civil wars, bombing by NATO, a civil revolution and overthrowing a dictator, transitioning to democracy and highly dubious privatizations that have left the majority of people in precarious working and living conditions. Surely, the covid-19 crisis has brought a new layer to the permanent crisis, but to understand and address the full scope of it, we have to stay aware of the roots of that permanent economic and social crisis. Nationalism, militarism and racism come as three keywords for this process. As the women’s movement in Serbia has been suggesting since the 1990s, these three make the base of the current oppression. And these three are what society as a whole yet needs to address and eliminate. 

The wars have passed but the militarist narratives are still a powerful weapon for keeping both women and men oppressed. Nationalist narratives are still a cheap compensation for the lack of economic security. Racist narratives are still a shameless excuse for not enabling Roma systemic support and running harmful practices against migrants. All of these narratives are quite mainstream, perpetuated by the ruling class in order to maintain their privileged position by encouraging the economically oppressed majority to blame their underprivileged position on the Others, the engineered enemies. And it’s been like that for well around thirty years. The economic crisis as the consequence of covid-19 comes merely as the sequel of the permanent crisis with a new narrative, the cherry on top of a cake made of nationalism, militarism and racism. And, here we find the crux of the matter: the latest false antagonism between economy and life. 

‘Our economy’ or ‘your life’ has been embraced globally as a new narrative to excuse and perpetuate the status quo in regards to these three crucial issues. To be fair, the efforts have existed on the progressive side as well, which is why it is crucial to hold on to the awareness of the full scope of the problem: covid-19 as a symptom, and militarism as a cause. The past wars have not produced covid-19 but the militarist tendencies that we still drag from the war times have marked the current health and social crisis as a war between economy and life. We have seen in the first days of the state of emergency, when the police and the army, fully equipped with weapons, were roaming our streets, as if they could shoot the virus. Nationalism is not the cause of the virus either but it is a virus of its own kind, spread by the officials through stories that Serbian genes are superior and Covid-19 cannot do us a thing. Finally, racism isn’t the cause of the virus but racism is what keeps Roma and migrants at higher danger of getting infected and dying due to the lack of access to healthcare and structural discrimination. 

Nationalism, militarism and racism are the carriers of patriarchy in Serbia, and today, they pass as a not-so transparent agenda around economy or life. Add a bit of religious fundamentalism, and there’s the full image of the enemy keeping women (and not only women) away from living free and safe lives. These are in the focus of progressive feminist struggles in the region. It is simply because without facing and remembering the violent past we cannot live in the present, let alone move on. As funders, we have a high priority to respond to the newly emerged needs caused by the covid-19 but we also must preserve our support to those decades-long struggles, preserving the results achieved so far and enabling them to proceed until society is at that level where we can say we are finally free of the burdens of militarism, nationalism and racism. 

Focusing entirely on the acute crisis may bring us many steps back, losing what we have already achieved: complexity and holistic approach to women’s rights and causes of oppressions, not only consequences. These fears are real and are drawn from experiences. After all, victories we have achieved can easily be dismantled, as we are seeing in many countries in the world. However, the resistance is also real, and we do not wish to end this piece with a gloomy vision. More importantly, we do not desire to end up in one more binary, either feminism or crisis. Rather, we want to conclude with several suggestions that might open us up to something different all together. Let us assume that this new narrative will be here with us to stay for some time. We have shown the dangers of it. And yet, it seems to us that we can avert the danger by asking how can we make the economy/life binary work for us and those we support in this marathon? Rather than constantly trying to shift the antagonism, or playing the game we are losing, we could start by creating a new narrative where we would set up a relation between economy and life as one of tension. Tension in itself calls into picture a whole different set of images and relations: energy, force, action, openness yet to be imagined, and nonviolence, of course. There is power to be held there, and it might be an opportunity for all of us in a post-covid era to focus once again on solidarity and collective economy as a means of eradicating its causes. A difficult task, but one worth undertaking.

Djurdja Trajkovic is a Coordinator at Reconstruction Women’s Fund

Galina Maksimovic is a Community Coordinator at Reconstruction Women’s Fund