Lessons for the “Green” Transition: Learning from Cooperatives in Former Yugoslavia

While Yugoslavia’s modernization project strove for the same domination over nature one witnesses in the rush to produce more and better today, it also created a platform for sociality – a radical difference that researcher Katarina Kušić explores in her contribution to the BG’s “After Extractivism” text series as a starting point for the much-needed transition into a just world.


Almost 50 years after the Green Revolution, there is urgent talk about needing another one — not only to feed the increasing population, but to respond to the loss of agricultural land, stop soil degradation, and make agriculture less carbon-intensive and overall “greener.” While many have put neo-Malthusian fears of “overpopulation” to rest, we are still afraid of empty fields that need using, desertification that steals soil, and not using the land we have appropriately, completely, satisfyingly. Thus we arrive at a paradoxical juncture: We need to extract more from a space that seems to be shrinking.

In East Europe, demographic trends move in a different direction – that of a shrinking population and out migration. The challenge to feed more people is not on the agenda. Yet, the anxiety of under-utilizing agricultural land remains ever present. In the space that once constituted Yugoslavia, this anxiety is obvious in public discussions of agricultural land markets. The desire to use land better structures policy discussion and drives land grabs, just to give two examples.

The fear of “land laying fallow” was mobilized in first privatizations of large agricultural enterprises (which involved, among other things, selling off land holdings at dramatic fractions of their market value). Nowadays it is still present in public discussion of investor agreements, celebrations of yet new privatizations, and the call for more and better technologies.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

In Serbia, and in East Europe at large, we are witnessing mass privatization and concentration of agricultural land justified by shortcomings of management, underperformance of yields, and general inability to use the land that seems to be abundant. These tropes and fears have a long history in popular imaginations of rural populations and spaces, but they also inspire dreams of technological solutions and a new agricultural revolution.

The past and present of the countryside

The urgent need to use land better connects to images of rural populations as “backward,” that is, “old, unable, and unwilling to learn about and use modern technologies of food production.” In 2016, the German pork producer Tönnies, who during the COVID-19 outbreak gained sad notoriety for unjust and illegal labor subcontracting practices, made plans to invest in Serbia. It was a time in which Aleksandar Vučić, then Prime Minister, spoke not only of modernizing agriculture, but also of a more general change in both the individual and society. After a visit to the Tönnies headquarters, Vučić projected that the mere presence of Tönnies in Serbia will “change the culture of doing business.”

When presenting the investment Vučić explained that Serbian people “have to learn” from “how the Germans do it,” “how they do it in the cleanliest possible way, in the best way, and why they are the most successful in Europe!” Even though this particular investment never came to fruition, Vučić’s top-down activism nevertheless resulted in far-reaching consequences. Today, similar state-negotiated investments in agricultural land in Serbia claim tens of thousands of hectares, the culminating deal being that of the sale of Poljoprivredni Kombinat Beograd and the 18,000 hectares of agricultural land in the vicinity of Belgrade that it was using. Discussions of these sales, for instance, among policy makers and in the public, are based on the same old “under-utilization” narrative.

The need to “produce better and extract more” here is not only supported by neo-Malthusian panic of growing populations but also finds fertile ground in transition discourses that paint the people of East Europe as “lacking the right work ethic” and “unable to extract enough.” Vučić’s aforementioned allusion to cleanliness is not accidental. It takes advantage of the civilizational gradations of hygiene that have been constructed along the geopolitical slopes of development and progress. Moreover, it harks to specifically rural backwardness – a trope common not only in post-1989 transitions, but also a crucial part of the Yugoslav project of modernization.

Although fascism was fought and defeated in rural areas, agricultural production and peasants occupied an awkward position in the socialist project. While factories went to the workers, giving land to peasants was seen as reverting to a traditional capitalist form of ownership. Moreover, the traditional subsistence agriculture urgently had to be scaled up: as people left the villages and moved to the cities to take on the project of industrialization, peasants had to produce not only for themselves, but for a growing part of the population. The percentage of agricultural population in the overall population dramatically shrunk: in 1948, it was 67.2%, in 1962 49.6%, and in 1981 only 19.9% of the population was classified as agricultural (Radenković and Solar 2018, p. 159). Their efficiency had to be increased by all means.

Fears of land under-utilization emerged in this period of intense industrialization. Some left the villages for the cities. But many stayed and limited themselves to weekly or monthly migrations, working in factories and cultivating small plots in order to supplement their income. These so-called “peasant-workers” were seen as drivers of under-utilization: they held up to one fifth of all arable land but lacked incentive for maximizing their production (Radenković and Solar 2018, p. 160).

Despite these fears, agricultural production in Yugoslavia grew once Soviet-style collectivization efforts were abandoned and replaced with cooperation between the individual and social sector, or, in other words, between peasants and large socially-owned enterprises, combines, and cooperatives. These large enterprises were undoubtedly oriented towards efficiency and accumulation. Combines merged primary production with processing and retail. Their slogan – “from arable land to the dining table” – is close both to today’s efforts at concentrating food production through “vertical integration” and visions of a different food system in the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy.

Despite their efforts to increase efficiency and industrialize agriculture, socialist combines and cooperatives also provided social platforms for rural communities. For example, when building the recently privatized Poljoprivredni Kombinat Beograd, workers from all over Yugoslavia did not only dry the swamp which became arable land, they also built the small towns that still surround the newly created fields. When interviewing one of the former workers, we were told its history in family terms: three generations working on the land, more than one life lost to workplace accidents.

This form of agricultural production intended to revolutionize food systems technologies and it wanted to bring to life a socialist political consciousness as well as a new way of life. It is worth taking this way of thinking into account when thinking of how to build common and more just futures: when discussing new technologies, investments, and ways of producing food, what kinds of lives do we imagine thriving?

The combines and cooperatives have been privatized in thoroughly corrupt processes where both peasants and whole rural communities were destroyed (see Srećković 2015). Today, ideas “vertical integration” – a corner-stone of Yugoslav agricultural development – are put in service of labor-exploiting capital (for example, in plans for the already mentioned Tönnies investment that was supposed to include everything from growing food to processing pork), or they are presented as novel imports from the West. Similarly, the reluctance of farmers to work and produce cooperatively is regularly attributed to “backward” mindsets and “economic ignorance,” failing to recognize the historical losses that peasants experienced when cooperatives went bankrupt and were privatized, and when the land that they cultivated disappeared in corrupt sales.

New initiatives to encourage cooperative development fall victim to old patterns of corruption and reward those already successful instead of opening the doors for young people and new entrants to farming (Petrović 2019, p. 25). These facts are well documented in both national and international reports, yet seem to be missing from discussions that aim to make sense of peasants’ decisions today.

Imagining the future

While the need to feed the planet has not disappeared, agriculture is now also identified as an important part of the climate crisis – its contributions to total greenhouse gas emissions are estimated between 20% and 30%. Hence, the aim is, or must be, twofold: producing more and producing “greener.” In this quest for more sustainable efficiency (or efficient sustainability), innovation is often confused for digitization: “precision agriculture” and “smart farming” rely on genetically modified crops, GSI systems, drones, and remote sensing. In the process, farmers lose control of their own means of production through copyright laws and the number of farmers decreases as their labor becomes obsolete.

The last decade has seen an emergence of a steady stream of technologies that promise both riches and success. Some are cynically launched as neoliberal, yet greenwashed products. Yet, behind others we can sense a strong belief in technology as a way out: we might have wronged the planet, but we can continue our exploitation if only we apply the appropriate technologies.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

An example of such a project is a new 4000 hectares project in Vojvodina. After successfully selling an extremely popular mobile app, Slovenian investors put their money into land as they hope to develope “new sustainable and ecological large-scale farming practices.” What that might mean for people who worked the land beforehand, or those in Serbia who might want to start farming, remains unsaid. If the electric car is the symbol of green capitalism, then fields of biofuels and organic monocultures overseen by drones are a symbol of green capitalist agriculture. Therefore: Any new technology has to be accompanied by the fight to keep it in the hands of peasants and their communities. This may sound like wishful thinking, but is in fact a daunting and exciting project already undertaken by many in both the East and the West.

Needless to say, conquering by tech is a dangerous matter. While the first industrialization meant to dominate and extract from nature, the “green” transition wants to dominate, extract, and get away with it. But thinking through the “green” transition with agriculture takes us beyond the ecological and economic and emphasizes the social: food is never just nutrients; production is never just technologies; and people are never just labor. Farming is a form of sociality, the creation and reproduction of collectives, of spiritual and family ties, of belonging and memories. And it happens on land, in a place, in someone’s home.

This is the radical difference, full of potential, between Yugoslav combines’ “vertical integration” and the current trends of concentration in food systems. While the Yugoslav drive for modernization strove for the same domination over nature that we witness in the rush to produce more and better today, it also created a platform for sociality. Resurrecting that sociality as a platform for agroecology is a precondition for imagining new forms of life. And it requires changing the way we think about agricultural production and the people that make it happen.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de

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