A little silk skirt like that lady from London: consumerism in a socialist society

This weekend I’ve been reading a review copy of Patrick Hyder Patterson’s Bought and Sold: Living and Losing the Good Life in Socialist Yugoslavia (Cornell University Press, 2011). I’ve had good luck with book reviews this year – another book I’ll be reviewing for the International Feminist Journal of Politics ended up helping me work out how to revise my contributions for a forthcoming book on languages and peace operations in Bosnia, and Bought and Sold would have been a must-read for me in any case because of my interests in culture and politics in former Yugoslavia.

The idea of a consumer society in a socialist state is fascinating culturally: weren’t they not supposed even to have those, anyway? (Yet Yugoslavia was deliberately different: its focus on consumer as well as industrial production from the 1960s onwards was a deliberate way to distinguish it from the Soviet bloc as well as from the West.)

In Yugoslavia’s case, it’s also fascinating politically, and in ways that resonate right into the contemporary West or Global North. Patterson is a historian who believes that, when a severe economic crisis hit Yugoslavia in the 1980s, the state’s inability to satisfy the consumer promises it had made to the public undid its legitimacy and created the space into which the post-Yugoslav elites whose actions destroyed the country could rush:

in ways we are only now beginning to appreciate, the failure of the Yugoslav Dream – the thwarted expectation of a Good Life that would be ever more available, ever more pleasing – was an essential part of what ultimately brought socialism to an end and tore the country apart. To understand what happened to Yugoslavia, and to the communist project in Yugoslavia, we need to appreciate the nature and power of the Yugoslav Dream and, beyond that, to ask just how the new vision of the Good Life was created, how it was lived, and what it meant for Yugoslav society – to ask, in other words, how it was bought and sold. (p. xvii)

This can’t help but resonate today, when another financial crisis has left large sections of the public in the West/North adjusting to a similar loss of expectations: what Paul Mason referred to, in a blog post that became the seed for his book on post-2008 unrest, as ‘the evaporation of a promise’. For Yugoslavia, Patterson argues that participating in a realistically accessible consumer culture enabled people to imagine themselves as part of a collective, Yugoslavia-wide social group with the same common references and aspirations – the common culture which is remembered now in physical and virtual museums of consumer nostalgia, and which at least some of the post-Yugoslav nationalist leaders tried (and failed) to strip meaning from. Where does replacement social meaning come from when common consumption fails?

At the same time, the book has fascinated me in ways that were probably too detailed to explain in a review for what, this time, is a very general and historically-oriented audience. I know that I’d pick out different things about the book if I was reviewing it for, let’s say, an interdisciplinary south-east European studies journal rather than the one that did commission it, which was the English Historical Review. One of these is the idea that symbols of consumption had a major role in constructing Yugoslav perceptions of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’, which is a tendency visible across socialist and post-socialist south-east Europe: all these societies went through large and rapid internal migrations from the countryside to cities as the states industrialised, and south-east European have been trying to make sense of the resulting dislocations ever since, with them being recontextualised again after the collapse of socialism.

(I want to blog more about this in the future: there are comparisons with consumption-based value judgements about class in the UK, as studied by people like Bev Skeggs, Sian Weston or Owen Jones.)

Patterson shows that, in the 1960s, ‘the country was experiencing an extraordinary transformation, and a new, consumerist way of life was filtering outwards even to the poorest rural areas’ (p. 39) – presented, in the book, with evidence from Party documents, sociological texts, advertising asnd magazines. There’s similar evidence in popular music of people trying to come to terms with what was being built, which was no less than ‘a genuine and far-reaching restructuring of life beyond the cities’ (p. 178).

For a generation of Yugoslavs, the contradictions were summed up in the ‘newly-composed folk music’ exemplified, in the 1980s, by Lepa Brena, whose star personality exemplified and exaggerated the Yugoslav woman of these transformations. (Some of my earliest research was to do with the cultural politics around the post-Yugoslav evolutions of NCFM.) In one of her first hits, Dama iz Londona (Lady from London, 1982), Brena’s character and her long-suffering boyfriend Mile fall out over their tastes in clothing and consumption:

Kaže meni lane moje, opanci ti lepo stoje
Haljine ti tanke ko u varošanke

Da mi kupiš, Mile, šuknjicu od svile
Da mi kupiš, Mile, šuknjicu od svile

Pa da stanem na štiklice
Da nacrtam obrvice
Da zanjišem sa bedrima, plavom kosom i njedrima

Bila bi ko ona dama iz Londona

(My darling tells me, sandals suit you
Thin dresses like the girls in town wear

Mile, if you buy me a little silk skirt
Mile, if you buy me a little silk skirt

And if I stand on high heels
If I draw in my eyebrows
If I captivate with my hips, my blonde hair and my breasts

I’ll be like that lady from London)

Even this short extract mobilises all sorts of ideas about fashion, glamour, clothing and textile production, luxury and (the imagination of) travel.

It was the decisions Patterson describes in his chapters on the advertising industry and on ideologists inside and outside politics that opened up the space where these negotiations would take place, and determined that Yugoslavia would not be a shortage and scarcity culture of the kind seen in much of the Soviet bloc. What one chose to consume, however, could then become material for social differentiation, in ways similar but not identical to the way that symbolic boundaries of (one’s own, and other people’s) class identity in the UK.