Applying Post-Socialist Studies outside Post-Soviet Space

By: Johanna Bockman

This article was orignally posted in the March NewsNet; for a full list of sources please see the original.


Over the past three years, I have been conducting a historical study of gentrification and displacement in Washington, DC. At the same time, I have also been working on a project about the 1980s debt crisis from the perspectives of the Second and Third Worlds. I find it stressful to work on very different projects and follow several, very different literatures – for example, on the one hand, American urban sociology and, on the other, Eastern European Studies focused on economics and finance. It often seems like I am operating in two different, unconnected worlds. This sense of disassociation results at least in part from the post-1989 reorientation and ultimately destruction of networks that had once connected these worlds and literatures. Here I explore these connections and apply the lessons of post-socialist studies to a less conventional space, specifically Washington, DC.

Post-socialism may seem irrelevant to DC since it has long been a major center of capitalism. However, one could argue that everyone, and especially major actors in the Cold War, have experienced “the global post-socialist condition” in some form or other(Gille 2010). The city of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank reshaped Soviet and post-Soviet space, relating to it in new ways. Yet, there are many DCs. For example, in the late 1970s, the city of Black Power forged DC into a democratic socialist space, connecting many parts of the city to the socialist and Third Worlds. After 1989, within DC, the city of the IMF and the World Bank implemented the same shock of post-socialist neoliberalism that Black Power fought against. The lessons of post-socialist studies should, in fact, be helpful to the study of DC. Here I have put together a list of potential applications of these lessons.

First, socialist and post-socialist chronologies are useful. During the 1980s, the Reagan administration severely cut domestic budgets and sought to destroy particular agencies, such as Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In 1989, with the arrival of the Bush administration, a group of libertarians calling themselves “the perestroika group” gained influence in the White House, and, in early 1990, celebrated a “new paradigm” characterized by market-orientation, decentralization, choice, and empowerment (Rowl and Novak 1990). In early 1992, HUD Secretary Jack Kemp unveiled a proposal for a new program called Perestroika for Troubled Public Housing, which would privatize all public housing by handing it to its residents (Glasheen and Henig 1993). As Eastern European governments implemented privatization, HUD realized this program first in DC.

Second, the field of post-socialist studies demonstrates that neoliberalism changes over time and in different locations (Rogers 2010). The HUD experiment in DC reflected the Republican Party’s neoliberalism of privatization and attempted destruction of state agencies. In 1993, the new Clinton administration transformed neoliberalism by putting forth policies in support of the state, markets, public-private partnerships (rather than complete privatization), technocracy, and the formation of neoliberal subjects. Similar to the international shift from the Washington Consensus, which supported the free market and privatization, to the Post-Washington Consensus, which recognized the need for the state and social programs, neoliberalism in the US shifted from dismantling of the state to reorganizing it, more in line with neoliberalism as understood by Michel Foucault (2008). As 1989 brought the first neoliberalism, 1993 brought this second neoliberalism, realized internationally and in DC. In 1995, the same year as the Bokros package in Hungary, the US Congress took over the DC government to implement austerity, enforce fiscal discipline, and realize a mix of both neoliberalisms.

Third, post-socialist studies cautions us to be wary of transitology. From early on, anthropologists and sociologists criticized transitology for its teleology, which imagined a quick and easy shift from state socialism to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. Scholars have further objected to transitology’s assumption that US economists would unidirectionally transfer American neoliberal capitalism to Eastern Europe and thus easily realize a global neoliberal project (Kopeček and Wciślik 2015). Kopeček and Wciślik argue that this view ignores local historical evidence of highly contentious domestic debates. We can thus understand this global neoliberal project not as smoothly imposed, but rather as in battle with other global projects, networks, and geographies, which do not necessarily allow full implementation of the project. These multiple globalizations crossed through DC.

Fourth, post-socialist studies encourages us to revisit supposedly universal social science concepts (Dzenovska and Kurtović 2017; Hann 2002; Rogers 2010), such as “globalization.”

As part of my research on DC, I am studying a small public housing project called the Ellen Wilson Dwellings, which had 134 apartments and existed from 1941 to 1996. In the US, public housing residents had developed grassroots organizing through tenant councils locally and nationally (Williams 2004). Tenant councils, like that at the Ellen Wilson Dwellings, not only advocated for repairs, security, and lower utility bills, but also took part in broader social movements, making public housing an important political, economic, and cultural space. By the 1980s, public housing residents constituted about ten percent of DC’s population (Gillette 1995: 197) and thus were an important political constituency.

Public housing residents could mobilize resources from other globalizations to protect themselves from the global neoliberal project. Ellen Wilson Dwellings residents had transnational socialist connections. Since the 1950s, DC had become a Pan-African space, a dense constellation of transnational connections with the African diaspora (Chatman 2016). Many Pan-African socialists worked in DC, such as Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) and C. L. R. James. Mayor Marion Barry (2014) traveled to 27 African countries during his first term in office. These Pan-African socialist connections also moved through the Ellen Wilson Dwellings. In the 1970s photo on page 3, the Ellen Wilson community center was advertised by an abstract image of a black person on a red, black, and green background looking into the light with a raised fist signifying Black Power, Black nationalism, and Pan-Africanism. In this basement center, residents could use the day care center and take a variety of classes including African drumming. Their own group, the Ujamaa Dancers and Drummers, performed for Black nationalist ceremonies around DC and beyond.

Public housing also became a site for cooperative experiments. In 1970, the Arthur Capper public housing project, just a block from Ellen Wilson, formed a food cooperative named the Martin Luther King Cooperative Food Store. By the early 1980s, it served over 2000 customers. Without home rule before 1975, DC residents, and African American residents in particular, had created cooperatives to develop “home rule from below” and to gain economic and political power in their lives. With official home rule, Mayor Barry created a Commission on Cooperative Economic Development, headed by national cooperative advocate Cornelius “Cornbread” Givens. Givens envisioned an entire development plan, organized by a community-wide cooperative, in which each community would integrate:

• producer cooperatives (particularly important for job creation);

• consumer cooperatives;

• credit unions;

• low-income housing cooperatives;

• a local charity (funded by profits from the other cooperatives to develop social action programs like schools, hospitals, and child development centers).

Givens understood these cooperatives as working together, forming an integrated model of community development outside of conventional capitalism (Bockman 2016).

These are just a few examples of the transnational socialist spaces in DC. Of course, this socialism is quite different from state socialism. At the same time, these socialist spaces existed in networks connecting other socialist worlds. Global black power and other movements – such as the non-aligned movement, Yugoslav worker self-management socialism, and feminist movements – sought new forms of economic ownership, decentralization, direct participation, and cultural recognition as a program for radical social change. These movements created new political spaces and new commons. These socialist geographies shared similar imaginaries and networks.

In the late 1980s, expanding capitalist geographies sought to take over these socialist geographies through gentrification in DC and through privatization in Eastern Europe. Yet, battles with other globalizations troubled this expansion, slowing and changing the expected “transition.” In Eastern Europe, technocrats and political elites used privatization to create new actors interested in a new neoliberal system (Greskovits 1998). In DC, real estate developers and other capitalist actors worked to co-opt and destroy the political power of public housing residents, who were still empowered by “the Afrocentric era of the late 1980s and early 1990s” (Chatman 2016: 240). In 1988, the residents of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings were moved out in order to renovate the apartments, but only in 1996 could real estate developers and white homeowners nearby successfully have the buildings destroyed and replaced with a mixed-income development. Only seven of the previous 134 families were ever able to return to the development. This gentrification focused on removing concentrations of low-income African Americans to disperse them as a political constituency and an obstacle to expanding capitalist space and to replace them with residents who would support a neoliberal city.

As Eastern Europe severed many of its socialist-era global connections and turned toward the European Community, gentrification expanded capitalist geographies with their own imaginaries. Gentrification destroyed certain spaces and networks, reconstructing these spaces with new networks as if on a tabula rasa. However, the fifth applicable lesson of post-socialist studies is that it also made us question the existence of tabulae rasae, suggesting that they are often a delusion held by the powerful (Gille 2010). While Keynesianism took its shape from the radical socialist movements of the 1920s and 1930s, neoliberalism takes its shape from radical socialist movements against both Soviet state-organized socialism and Western state-organized capitalism of the 1960s and 1970s (Bockman 2012). The Black Power city fundamentally altered life in DC, by affirming African Americans as equal citizens, creating new political arenas for direct participation, and forging new kinds of economic commons, especially through cooperatives. Elites appropriated these political arenas and economic commons, and used them for neoliberal capitalism. As a result of particular appropriations and particular locations within the global division of labor, post-socialism looks different in different locations worldwide (Gagyi 2016).

Other lessons from post-socialism, “unbound” from conventional geographical confines (Rogers 2010), suggest questions for further research. Post-socialist studies has highlighted the continuities with the socialist past. How have DC residents used the socialist past of the Black Power city to defend themselves from global neoliberalism today? Is nostalgia for the Black Power city like nostalgia for socialism in Eastern Europe? Is the attack on the Black Power city similar to recent Eastern European government strategies of white supremacy, which seek to increase their nations’ “whiteness” credentials and status in the European Union by rejecting past and current connections of solidarity with the Third World and making “an anti-racist, system-critical position” unthinkable (Böröcz and Sarkar 2017)? Or is it more similar to the white supremacy of Western European governments, which never had these connections or views? What is the future of post-socialist DC with its multiple pasts and multiple, “uncertain, variously apocalyptic, millennial or endlessly deferred” futures (Dzenovska and Kurtović 2017: 15)? Should we even use the term post-socialist, since socialist institutions and ideas continue, even in DC (Gagyi 2015; Gilbert 2006)? Finally, how might discoveries about places like the multiple DCs, in turn, contribute to post-socialist studies?

In the introduction, I suggested that the difficulty perceiving the connections between (post-)socialist multiple DCs and conventional (post-)socialist spaces, beyond agent and victim of neoliberal hegemony, results from the reorientation, obscuration, and destruction of these connections after 1989. Here I have explored these explored these relationships through the application of some of the lessons of post-socialist studies. How might other spaces and entities connect in surprising ways with the conventionally understood post-socialist world?


1. The following is a revised version of a presentation given in the 2017 Annual Soyuz Symposium at Indiana University. Many thanks to the symposium participants, Zsuzsa Gille, and Andrew Zimmerman for insightful comments.

2. US economist John Williamson (1990) defined the “Washington Consensus” as the reforms that he thought “Washington”—meaning “both the political Washington of Congress and senior members of the administration and the technocratic Washington of the international financial institutions, the economic agencies of the U.S. government, the Federal Reserve Board, and the think tanks”—could agree were required in Latin America by 1989.

Johanna Bockman is Associate Professor of Sociology in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at George Mason University, As of August 2018, she will be Associate Professor of Global Affairs and Sociology in the Global Affairs Program at George Mason University.