Review: Bought and Sold: Living and Losing the Good Life in Socialist Yugoslavia

This review originally appeared in English Historical Review 128:535 (2013), 1636-8.

Bought and Sold: Living and Losing the Good Life in Socialist Yugoslavia, by Patrick Hyder Patterson (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University P., 2011; pp. xvii + 388, $39.95).

Tito’s Yugoslavia, just as the shapers of its political and socio-economic system intended, stands out from the other socialist states of central and eastern Europe in the historical record. Expelled from the Comintern in 1948, it stood outside the Soviet bloc proudly, and was distinguished not only by its unique system of socialist ‘self-management’ but also by its orientation from the 1960s onwards towards consumer as well as industrial production. Inhabitants of the former country, contrasting their everyday lives under Yugoslav socialism with the economic misery that followed Yugoslavia’s disintegration, remember those past decades as a time of abundance. There would be strong reasons to hypothesise that this narrative of realistically achievable everyday satisfaction, which the author of this fascinating book has good grounds to compare to the myth of the ‘American Dream’, had political as well as cultural significance during the collapse of Yugoslavia. In the decade after Tito’s death, numerous interest groups put forward demands for radical revision of the Yugoslav system and these became – but were not inevitably destined to become – an ethnicized politics of fear. Without Tito, and beset by an economic crisis that threatened to undo Yugoslavs’ expectations about their lives, the regime was quickly drained of legitimacy. Did the sudden inability to realise previous living standards damage the legitimacy of the post-Tito regime and even facilitate the crisis of which leaders who positioned themselves as ethnopoliticians would take advantage? Bought and Sold offers detailed evidence to support this reading.

Bought and Sold operates on several historiographical levels. Patterson has been involved with the study of Yugoslav consumerism for more than a decade, during which a small but growing number of cultural historians and anthropologists have begun to research aspects of consumer life in the SFRY and of how it has been remembered. (Much of this literature is drawn together here, though there are further connections to be made with the work of Yugoslav ethnologists on the urban/rural divide.) Patterson’s detailed archival research in Zagreb and Belgrade and his detailed attention to the internal professional conversations of advertising and marketing specialists enable him to illustrate the policies that brought these experiences into being and the level of contestation that surrounded them. Simultaneously, the book confidently positions itself in dialogue with the wider historiography of socialist consumer culture – in which any attempt to discuss Yugoslavia must consider whether or not Titoism’s distinctive character made Yugoslavia so much of an outlier that findings from the Soviet bloc cannot be transferred to it. The book deftly deals, for instance, with the problem of whether the idea of a ‘culture of status marking and group differentiation’ (p.3) through consumption, summed up by Pierre Bourdieu as his theory of distinction, can be a meaningful tool for studying societies where two fundamental metaphors used by Bourdieu, markets and capital, had different meanings. The anthropologist Katherine Verdery, in What Was Socialism and What Comes Next? (Princeton University Press, 1996), considered that it could not. Patterson makes the case that, for Yugoslavia, ‘shopping for satisfaction, self-expression and status’, and a market-based understanding of business and advertising, were certainly prevalent enough for Bourdieu’s theoretical apparatus to stand. Indeed, there is evidence of Yugoslav Marxist critics of consumerism drawing on Bourdieu as well as Mills and Veblen. Yet there is also a reservation: socialist ideology and the contemporary public morality appeared to restrain the upper limit of consumer consumption (except, that is, for Tito). Bourdieusian social differentiation thus existed, yet not to the same extent as the West.

Patterson is also aware of broader discussions within the general history of consumption, and engages directly with the subfield’s most significant problem: is culture produced by those who manufacture it or by those who use it? Patterson is direct in stating, and showing, that ‘there was a limit to what [advertisers] and the market culture they promote it could achieve in the absence of a strong response from below’ (p. 4). His ultimate aim is to use the Yugoslav example as a means of ‘testing the traditional identification of consumer society with capitalism’. Could non-capitalist systems nonetheless ‘produce something resembling Western-style consumer culture’ (p. 12)? Eight chapters present his nuanced case that they can. Chapter 1 introduces the background of Yugoslav economic reforms; Chapters 2 and 3, richly informed by trade journals and press advertising, show how advertisers worked their own profession into socialist ideology; Chapters 4 and, later, 6 present critiques of consumer culture from Marxists within the political system and from the Praxists, a dissident Marxist group; Chapter 5 shows how the Yugoslav regime attempted to regulate consumer culture and advertising; Chapter 7 discusses consumers’ own experiences, based on television serials and women’s magazines – and Chapter 8 argues that the Yugoslav consumer culture was precisely what enabled Yugoslavs to imagine themselves as one collective social group, until their falling living standards prevented them from fully participating in it. An epilogue gives Patterson’s perspective on ‘Yugo-Nostalgia’, which is in large part expressed through remembering precisely that consumer culture.

The idea of a state’s legitimacy grounded in its capacity to provide a consumer ‘Good Life’, then dwindling as its capacity dwindled, is deeply relevant today. Patterson observes: ‘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’ (p. xvii). This cannot but resonate with contemporary Western anxieties about whether accelerating growth in living standards can continue to be achieved, and what politically might be produced by such a disappointment. Bought and Sold’s final chapter (‘Needing It’) uses secondary histories and consumption theorists to illustrate this process, and its epilogue (‘Missing It’) depicts the aftermath. There is surprisingly little, however, on how 1980s consumers actually came to terms with altered possibilities; using an anthropological lens, one might wish to hear more about the experience of Losing It. Bought and Sold is, nonetheless, a deeply satisfying book. It will be indispensable for the history of Yugoslavia and for the history of socialist consumerism, but deserves to be read also by a greater range of cultural historians: the research it contains allows the Yugoslav experience to be written into the history of consumption and everyday life in general, where it has long deserved to be considered.

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