By Lazar Radic for the Saker Blog
While there may be legitimate reasons to support any given candidate in the US elections -or none- public displays of hostility towards one such candidate are an odd thing to behold in a country that was bombed not so long ago at the stroke of his rival’s pen. In this short article, I would like to advance four theories which might help explain this otherwise seemingly irrational phenomenon.
While the present article refers specifically to my own country and its native “liberal elite” (neither truly “liberal” nor truly “elites”), the arguments espoused might resonate with others’ experiences – particularly those from other “Eastern European” countries; former or current colonies (in name or in practice); and countries which have recently undergone, or which are presently undergoing, a “transition” towards a liberal capitalist political economy. One example that comes to mind is Poland – a society where the liberal elite is totally -and proudly- detached from the reality of the average person, as expertly depicted in Jan Komasa’s recent movie Hejter.
The question to be answered is the following: what are the possible psychological and sociological reasons for the Serbian “liberal elites” vehement opposition to everything Donald Trump, and their concomitant eager support for Biden and Harris?
The answer features four separate, albeit interrelated, dimensions: (i) an outward dimension; (ii) an inward dimension; (iii) a material dimension; (iv) and an internal dimension. In the conclusion, I explain how these relate to -and compound- each other, and paint a final picture of the pathology of Serbian the Serbian “liberal elite”.
1.The Outward dimension: Memetic signaling to the cosmopolitan liberal elite that they are like them
After the war in 1999, a small minority of those Serbs who got rich by working for, or with, foreign but mostly US and EU capital. The material windfall enjoyed by these compradores however, came at the price of a very large chip on their shoulder: no matter how much financial/material capital they amassed, they could never really upgrade their cultural capital. Upwards social mobility, in other words, did not account for one’s nationality.
Indeed, despite the impressive depth of their pockets, the compradores would always be nothing more than Serbs. “Eastern Europeans”. Born and bred in Serbia – Belgrade, at most. Perhaps Novi Sad (anything else was of course unspeakable). Recurrent contacts with their colleagues and clients (more often the latter) – now compounded in the age of social media- were a constant and painful reminder of their inferiority.
Whereas their foreign counterparts spoke with a crisp RP or American accent (or with a French or German tinge – arguably even better); boasted trendy “Western” names like “Frank” (Sinatra? Miller?), “Emma” (Watson? Thompson?), “Helmut” (Kohl?), or “Paul” (Gaultier?); had read at Oxbridge, LSE, NYU, Berlin, Sciences Po; and were admitted to the NY bar or were solicitors in London; their Serbian juniors were all “Vladimirs” (Putin?) and “Tatjanas”. When the time would come to discuss school or professional experience, a moment that in a more homogenous or organic milieu would be filled with references to common acquaintances or workplaces, the Serbians would be more focused on damage control than on scoring points.
The Serbian “liberal elite” could obviously not change their past or ancestry (sadly), and their “Slavic” accent and lack of worldly anecdotes would promptly betray any attempt at deception. Nor could they move out of Serbia, because they would then be forfeiting precisely what had made them the elite in the first place (they would go from being a big fish in a small pond to being plankton in the ocean). Accordingly, a different strategy had to be devised to signal to the cosmopolitan milieu which they so desperately wished to belong to that, despite not attending the same schools, not having the same mother tongue, not having similar-sounding names; they were one of them.
Kow-towing to the same idols, assimilating the same vocabulary and cultural tropes fulfilled this function (or so they thought). Hence, since the vast majority of the cosmopolitan liberal elite despise Trump and support Biden – and sneer at the mere possibility of anybody doing anything else, a mania that has been depicted scathingly by Bret Easton Ellis in White– it follows that they must do so too.
In all of this, Biden’s politics, his capacity to be President, is entirely and utterly beside the point. It does not matter what Biden’s foreign policy will be – or, perhaps more importantly, what it has been. In fact, the worse the prospects of a Biden presidency for Serbia, the better – the more explicit- the opportunity to repudiate one’s own people and oneself. The memetic message of the desire to belong, in this sense, is powerful not despite being auto-chauvinistic, but precisely because it is auto-chauvinistic.
In conclusion, the Serbian “liberal elite” has a burning desire to send a very specific message to foreign – primarily “Western”- observers who they view as the senior members in the cosmopolitan, globalized elite “milieu” which they so desperately seek admission to. That message is “we are like you, please accept us”. Embracing Biden and “despising” Trump are just memetic tools employed towards that end, not appraisals of either candidate’s politics.
Embracing Joe Biden in Serbia, therefore, has a strong outward dimension insofar as it is projected at the exterior.
2.The Inward dimension: Memetic Signalling to the Serbian rabble that they are not like them
Hegel’s dialectical method posits that ideas emerge through a process in which the thesis and antithesis eventually form a synthesis. Extrapolating Hegel to the cultural realm (and foregoing the possibility of a synthesis ever-emerging) we can say that the antithesis to the Serbian “liberal elite” is the Serbian non-elite or the “non-liberal” elite. The quintessential embodiment of the “non-elite”, and perhaps its most extreme manifestation, is the figure of the “sendvičar” (roughly: the sandwicher).
The sendvičar is generally poor, uneducated, and often hungry. He (or she) tends to be from a smaller, peripheral town or village, and will allegedly exchange his vote or “sell” his presence at a pro-government rally for a ham and cheese sandwich. And while not all Serbs who do not belong to the elite, or who are not liberal, are sendvičari in the literal sense, the idea of the sendvičar is a convenient stand-in for “the uneducated masses” and an easy target for the accumulated derision and snobbery of the “liberal elite”. Hence, the next logical step is to see anyone who supports the current government as a sendvičar.
Beyond national politics, most sendvičari and other “illiberal” Serb types overwhelmingly support Donald Trump. As do many people in Serbia for that matter – or who are of Serbian descent. And since the liberal elite must fervently rush to embrace everything and anything that is the antithesis of what the “rabble” wants, regardless of the ulterior substance of what it actually is that the rabble wants, so too they must ridicule Donald Trump and extol Joe Biden. They must differentiate themselves from the primitive masses. Like in the case of outward signaling, substance is a minor detail of no real importance. The position of the majority is thus a purely aesthetic one.
It is utterly irrelevant, for e.g., whether the average Serb – regardless of whether he is actually a sendvičar, or even “illiberal”- has legitimate personal or ideological reasons to think as he thinks. Once again, this is entirely beside the point. It does not matter, for instance, that the average Serb might see Donald Trump as leading a crusade against the same corrupt political establishment that spearheaded the 1999 bombings and orchestrated the so-called independence and subsequent plunder of Kosovo. Or that he has promised to roll back NATO. Or that he has adopted a less belligerent attitude in his relations with Russia (who many Serbs regard as allies). Or that his rival co-sponsored the Biden-McCain resolution which called then President Clinton to use all necessary force to oust Slobodan Milosevic. Including bombing a civilian population, foreign embassies, and journalists.
People who subscribe to the above views are systematically portrayed in the “liberal elite” media as politically illiterate and backward. But the process behind the adoption of such positions is no more unsophisticated than the “liberal elite’s” crude determination to define itself in opposition thereto.
Trumpeting Joe Biden in Serbia, therefore, has a second, internal dimension: it is projected inwards. It is a non-verbal cue to other Serbs to be interpreted as meaning that despite having the same mother tongue, being born in the same country or city, sharing a similar name: “we are definitely not like you”.
3.The Material dimension: the final demarcation between “us” and “them”
The 1999 bombings destroyed Serbian industry and targeted civilians, including journalists. Thousands of people were killed. In addition to the vast material damages, the air raids left the population psychologically scarred and spiritually disoriented.
But from the perspective of the “liberal elite”, the bombings created the window of opportunity that allowed them to become what they are today. The bombings are thus the material manifestation of the demarcation between them, the elite, and their antithesis – everyone else. While the other differences between the two groups are more psychological than material – this one is absolute in its physicality. It constitutes concrete, irrefutable evidence of their repudiation of the other group. “I prospered; while you did not”. This is the ultimate material proof that you and I are, indeed, different.
Embracing Joe Biden is a shorthand for embracing the bombings. It is yet another chance for the “liberal elite” to remind themselves, and everyone else, that while they are culturally and morally superior to the Serbble (the Serbian rabble) – the moat that separates “us” from “them” is as palpable as a Tomahawk cruise missile.
4.The Internal dimension: palliating a deep-seated sense of inferiority and spiritual malaise
Despite its socio-cultural significance, the political virtue-signaling of the Serbian “liberal elite” ultimately has less to do with the outside world and more to do with the deep-seated insecurities of the individuals engaging in it.
The desperate, almost hysterical, need to incessantly signal that they are better – more sophisticated, richer, more cultured, more polyglot- than the Serbble -a bunch of illiterate peasants– eats away at their soul and guides their every decision. It shapes their persona and determines the course of their life: What they will eat, what they will wear, how they will talk, which sports team they will support, where they will go on holiday, and of course what they will share on Twitter.
If the “non-elite” eats pljeskavica, then they will eat burgers: an overpriced pljeskavica where you pay for every additional ingredient, get less bread, and less meat (those of them who are not enlightened enough to be vegans – yet). If meat is a staple of the Serbian diet, then they will be vegans. If the average person drinks Jelen or Lav beer (beer with the taste of beer), then they will drink Milk Stout beer or SuperNova. If the Serbble cheers For France in the final of the football world cup – they will cheer for Croatia. If everyone in Serbia strongly disapproves of the illegal NATO bombings of their country in 1999 – then they celebrate them.
All of this cultural self-flagellation comes not from rational conviction, but from a desperate need for differentiation. This is because, despite their best efforts, “liberal elites” still see the Serbble as a part of themselves which needs to be washed away, like those Indians who bleach their skin to look more like their colonizers. Embracing Joe Biden is not the result of some complex or sophisticated analysis of his policies. It is a brand of ethnic laundering the purpose of which is to offer psychological reassurance to the active subject that he is, internally, as superior to everyone else as he pretends to be external. In other words, whereas the dimensions discussed so far are meant to send some sort of message to others; this one sends a message to its bearer.
The purpose of this short essay was not to assess whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden offer a more favourable prospect for Serbia on the basis of their respective foreign policies. Or, more abstractly, to determine which prospective government would present a better “model” for emulation for Serbia. Such questions have been discussed at length elsewhere by other, more qualified commentators.
Rather, it was to speculate on the potential reasons for the passionate, almost fanatical, rejection of one candidate in favour of the other – despite there being no clear rational reason to do so. And, in fact, it is interesting to observe that rarely if ever are such rational reasons given (beyond the usual triter references and epithets used in the “West”).
But that may be precisely the point. The purpose of these public declarations of loyalty is not to invite rational debate with anyone, for why would anyone in the “West” engage some lawyer from a petty, second-world country like Serbia in debate over the US Presidentials? And, by the same token, why would the Serbian “liberal elite” engage anyone from their own country in debate over such matters, when everyone who does not already agree with them is, by definition, unworthy of being talked to?
The point of such public displays is, rather, to signal belonging (thesis) and repudiation (antithesis). It is a cultural meme containing relevant information aimed at a domestic and an international audience.
But most importantly, it reaffirms the holder in his or her sense of superiority – a drug they need to consume daily to mitigate their crippling feeling of inferiority.