Urban Ecologies in Sarajevo: Why We Must Build Anti-Systemic Struggles

Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Subjecting all livelihoods to capitalist appropriation does not simply mean robbing ‘us’ of what belongs to ‘us.’ Rather, it means depriving ‘the people’ of common resources, that is, ‘our’ infrastructure of life (air, climate, health care, education, public space, etc.) and thus preventing ‘us’ from organizing human and other-than-human life in a democratic and sustainable way, Svjetlana Nedimović argues in her contribution to the “Kin City” series, zooming in on struggles for social, spatial, and environmental justice in Sarajevo.

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This New Year’s Eve, the small central Bosnian town of Zavidovići was visited by a real 1950s Hollywood-style Christmas movie, when an elderly man living on a pension, which in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) usually means a modest monthly sum that keeps the elderly population (at least some of them) away from extreme poverty, but close to it, won the jackpot in the national bingo lottery. He scored over 750 thousand Euro. In an anonymous interview, the retiree explained that he would put away some money to live out his remaining days in reasonable comfort, but most of it would be used to buy two apartments in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a form of family investment.

Walking through the city of Sarajevo while the night is still young, many of the new apartment blocks, almost without exception gigantic or at least, in the older part of the city, out of proportion to the plot of land and the neighborhood in which they were built, appear hollow and spectral. During the day, the bustling streets and cafes of downtown suggest otherwise, but at night I wonder if I’m not walking through the alleys of the city, but through the elaborate glass, concrete, and steel constructions of the financial district in a computer game.

How can one fight for the city as a common good when the city is being transformed into a gigantic construction site where corporate capitalists, war profiteers, and impoverished populations are all looking for assets to cope with the uncertainties of the future?

Pacification via privatization

After the war of the early 1990s, Sarajevo experienced a decade of relatively rapid deindustrialization, in fact a systematic destruction of all larger enterprises with more lucrative assets, especially land. This initial land-grab campaign was the work of the political and business elite, but international actors played an important role through various restructuring programs, all of which led to the economic devastation of BiH industry.

There was resistance. The first decade after the war was marked by an enormous number of strikes as the remaining workers fought for their jobs. But the strikes failed to restore industrial production. Not only was the dominant narrative of “irreparably unprofitable socialist dinosaur companies” hammered into the public, including the workers themselves, but the last vestiges of the old class organizing structures were destroyed or eroded, so that workers often settled for paying the company’s share of their health and social insurance with companies that went bankrupt through well-prepared maneuvers by bankruptcy administrators, new owners, and commercial bankers.

What happened to the city during these decades is a cliché of formerly socialist urban communities in capitalism. For a good three decades now, Sarajevo, that rather small and narrow valley comfortably nestled between the Dinarides, has been disappearing in the manic superurbanization, with monstrous buildings and more and more towers squeezed in between older blocks of flats, lining up tightly around already narrow streets and pedestrian zones, pushing out and away smaller individual dwellings, devouring green zones. What has generated the profits to invest in mastodon-like apartment and office blocks is a global commonplace: in addition to the more conventional surplus and the inevitable war profiteering, there is money laundering by drug cartels, tax evasion money, and nearshoring. And the available sites were many. There were former factory sites, of course; there were properties sold by people who left the city for good or acquired through obscure paperwork; and there were vast public spaces, once intended for the good individual and collective life of the city’s growing population, now up for grabs.

The feverish building boom has spread to the surrounding mountains, once the pride of Sarajevans as ‘untouched wilderness’ at the city gates and even within the city, and now the playground of the real estate market, buried under blocks and blocks of concrete. The blocks house the investment ambitions of the new elite, but also of the ordinary middle class.

For years, these trends elicited little response beyond a growing appetite for business among the more affluent segments of society. What finally sparked a public response was a growing awareness of the problems associated with air pollution and increasingly frequent heat waves. In an ironic twist, the middle class, nurtured on neoliberal narratives of personal well-being and health as personal responsibility, came to realize that they could not easily control a vital condition for survival and a good life – namely, air and climate. Bottled water can be bought, gyms can be booked, organic food can be ordered, active vacations and time off can be paid for, but air and climate are beyond private control. Air filters and air conditioners can only do so much.

At this point, green spaces such as avenues of trees and parks become breeding grounds for confrontation and contestation of the dominant paradigm of urban life and development. But how far can it go, how much can casual struggles over parks steer the waters and cut through the hegemonic model of the city and urbanization as the main vehicle of profit accumulation?

Environmentalism in urban struggles – a meager promise

In “Rebel Cities” (2012), David Harvey argues that urban struggles can be steered away from fragmented and issue-specific efforts toward a unified anti-capitalist challenge by focusing on “those moments of creative destruction where the economy of wealth-accumulation piggy-backs violently on the economy of dispossession, and there proclaim on behalf of the dispossessed their right to the city – their right to change the world, to change life, and to reinvent the city more after their hearts’ desire.”

In this sense, the destruction of public green spaces may not seem like a straightforward case of dispossession, such as outright gentrification. However, the privatization of public spaces for private profit has the dimension of dispossessing the community, if not the individual. Thus, after the much earlier struggles over factories and workplaces, the only Sarajevo mobilization that arose out of outright dispossession was the protest campaign in January 2016 against the attempt to close the city hospital, one of the two main medical centers. It threatened the loss of much-needed public health capacity and mobilized mainly the lower social strata, as the middle class and elite increasingly rely on private health care coupled with various forms of life insurance. There were strong indications that the hospital grounds and buildings would be converted into a luxurious medical hotel. It was arguably a threat to deprive people of access to decent public health care in a public institution.

The transformation of urban green spaces into private construction sites takes on a broader meaning than the privatization of the public. First, it involves private profit-making from public property at the expense of public health, as new construction occupies public land and cuts down trees that are essential for air purification and temperature control. In addition, new buildings are invariably so tall that they end up blocking crucial air currents in the narrow valley of urban Sarajevo.

Second, it clearly shows how administrative procedures devised as part of the democratic transition, with the tacit approval of international agents, effectively cut the urban population out of the planning and organization of life in the city. Working within these mobilizations, I have personally encountered the genuine astonishment of so-called ordinary citizens of all generations at the moment of enlightenment: that their influence on city politics is more or less limited to election day, with elections themselves being a compromised democratic institution, not only in the Balkans. We do not even know how little institutional power we have, and when we do realize it, we inevitably conclude that the deprivation of power leads to the dispossession of the city. It is not just property that is taken away, but the infrastructure and the autonomous practice of the entire collective urban life.

In this sense, these mobilizations could have some potential for a broader anti-capitalist struggle as a struggle against economic arrangements that allow a minority to profit from the exploitation and even destruction of common resources. But this potential is more often than not thwarted. In the last ten years there have been several successful civic campaigns throughout Sarajevo – a number of green spaces, parks, and trees have been defended, as well as a number of public schools and the aforementioned hospital. But these initiatives have never united and formed a front to reclaim the city from the domination of capitalist rationality and order.

Beyond environmentalism

I think this failure has to do with the fact that environmentalism is, in a sense, the basis for these struggles. Environmentalism often serves as an ideological trap and can, in fact, hinder anti-capitalist mobilization. Struggles that call themselves strictly environmental often insist on nature as the primordial cause above all politics, which on the one hand is nothing but a depoliticization, while on the other hand the movements end up slipping into deeply conservative and outright reactionary impulses of early green movements, even tapping into tendencies of a romanticized ‘return to nature,’ which is an exclusionary and elitist goal. Such mobilizations also prove susceptible to neoliberal moralizations of problems that insist on appealing to personal responsibility rather than challenging the dominant paradigm.

But struggles for urban green spaces do not fit easily into the container of environmentalism, as they cut across a range of issues: greenery, public space as a commons, health, equality, decommodification, and so on. As such, these struggles should provide excellent ground for radicalizing struggles in terms of goals and strategies.

Yet, the process is not linear. Sarajevan groups that rise up in defense of parks, for example, tend to see only their own neighborhood as a legitimate and pressing concern. It is almost as if embracing the local commons paradoxically leads to a kind of privatization – both of a particular area and of the struggle over it. The goal is local and concrete. So the demands can be local, concrete, and made to the system, not against it. But this is precisely what limits the political imagination of such groups and their potential to unite in a larger anti-systemic movement. Our efforts remain within procedural limits, never venturing into an open space of challenging the system itself or at least asking questions: Why is it that parks are a remaining common? Why is urban development reduced to commercial construction? How is it that space becomes a financial asset?

These broader questions are obscured by the dominant culture of investment advertised as urban development. This culture hides the fact that the real estate market privatizes urban space and disembodies it in finance. As David Harvey notes: “Capitalist urbanization perpetually tend to destroy the city as a social, political and livable commons. […] Urbanization is about the perpetual production of an urban commons (or its shadow-form of public spaces and public goods) and its perpetual appropriation and destruction by private interests.”

The city as the work of all its inhabitants

The diagnosis is well known, but its implications for urban struggles are often overlooked. Groups that rise up to defend green spaces fail to see that trees and parks (in the neighborhood) are not the only legitimate commons of the city. Housing, health care, education and so much more makes up ‘our’ infrastructure of life. At the same time, environmentalists also fail to see that their own claim to make decisions about the city (space) rests on any basis other than property ownership and possibly financial transactions such as paying taxes or buying. In this sense, their rebellion actually reinforces the hegemony of fencing off, fragmenting, privatizing, and financializing concern with the city.

In the best tradition of bourgeois revolutions, it is a question of grounding political rights in financial status. This tendency is also related to the capitalist restoration of the 1990s, which turned social housing into private property, so that self-managed housing communities became agglomerations of owners (or their tenants) whose claim to ‘their’ green spaces is based on their ownership of the apartments in the block. Here there is no understanding of Henri Lefebvre’s city as the work of all its inhabitants, where the city dweller is primarily a worker. The investments that are pumped into the cities are extracted from people’s labor, both paid and unpaid, and they also perpetuate the extraction through rents and property sales.

But if the struggles do not challenge the investment culture as such, but only its targeted objects and more or less targeted effects, then we are dealing with the alienation, in the strict Marxist sense, of workers from their work, from the fruits of their labor, and also from their existential sociality as lived in interconnected collectivities composed of urban and more-than-urban, human and other-than-human life. It is not a particular issue, such as the climate crisis, that can per se help to recover the notion that urban life and urban development are intimately connected to and produced by human (and other-than-human) labor in the broadest sense. There is no shortcut to recovering the idea of the city as a living and tangible reality, the real that underlies and transcends real estate, in direct confrontation with the dominant paradigm of the city as a temple of capitalism. The situation of the climate crisis will not produce it. Only the understanding of its roots. The roots that force a lucky pensioner, winner of the jackpot, from the Bosnian province to play Monopoly with a living city.

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