Precarious Workers and Political Community in potentia

Health and Wealth on the Bosnia Market: Intimate Debt is an achievement of originality and imagination. By documenting how “existential worry is the norm” (131) and “indebtedness is the human condition in contemporary Bosnia” (257)—indeed, what “human beings have in common” in “oddly bodily” ways—Jašarević’s study expands significantly how we conceive precarity and its effects. I immediately began thinking with it, and not only because I also do my research in the city and region—and new conditions of “the market”—where her research takes place. Where she moved among traders and healers, my research is on the activism of workers from industrial firms confronting the effects of the privatization and bankruptcy of formerly socially-owned companies. I focus in particular on the claims-based forms of politics workers practice when they do not have recourse to the usual tactics of withholding their labor: protest rallies, occupying public space in tent encampments, hunger strikes, among other actions. Most are aimed at recuperating months, if not years, of unpaid salaries and social and health insurance contributions – and to restart production in factories idled by debt and disinvestment. Reading this book opened up fresh insights onto the debilitating stakes of disemployment, the indignity and injury of debt, and the logics that animate syndical activism.

For example, Jašarević’s study shows how the radical reduction of financial resources and access to the formal health care system that come with disemployment drastically curtails one’s ability to participate in the gift-debt economy. This limits one’s capacity to create the wealth and value that comes from accumulating, deferring, and discharging/giving debt-gifts that, in turn, extend care and sustain health, add some measure of pleasure to “just surviving,” constitute the grounds of being-in-common rather than merely being, and that create the non-monetary or non-economic surpluses that can “redistribute fortunes and reorder health” (17). And because participation in the gift/debt economy is acutely felt and embodied, concerns about one’s relative standing in debt/gift relations and circulations can itself constitute a form of suffering, or being “worried-sick” (sikirancija); here disemployment is a source of bodily disorder that inhibits its treatment and remedy. This is compounded when that disemployment is caused by inefficacious, even punitive debt.

In this regard, I found particularly valuable two disconnected observations in the text: the first was that many of Jašarević’s interlocutors were outraged at having to pay back micro-credit loans with interest, particularly when such loans were extended with a humanitarian ethos. This was because Bosnians “hold them to a standard of the informal, personal loans that are interest free” (93). Elsewhere she finds Tuzlans criticizing the health clinic and social care center for being “on the outside of the gift economy” (162). That people desire or expect the gift/debt economy to extend into all domains having to do with health and the conditions for well-being, and that all debt relations should to some degree follow the logics of interpersonal relations of loaning/gifting, suggests a re-consideration of the kind of debt loaded onto workers through the privatization of companies that were once socially-owned and self-managed by the workers.

For example, cases abound of wealthy or politically-connected individuals who take out bank loans, ostensibly to invest in and “modernize” production – but without any intention of investing or paying back the loans. When they default, fail to pay worker salaries and insurance contributions, and production collapses, it is the workers who are saddled with the effects of company debt. Workers think of the company as “theirs”—as it once was, before the state turned socially-owned firms into state-owned firms during the 1990s war—but not the debt. Not surprisingly, they act utterly unbound morally by the idea that these bank loans should determine the future of their factory and their lives.

However, the injury of such situations is made all the more acute not only because workers suffer the effects of debt that they did not take out, but also because these debts have no human face, do not facilitate present and future relations, gave no benefit or enjoyment, and clearly fall outside of the moral logics and actual exchanges of the gift economy. If indebtedness is the human condition in Bosnia, some forms of debt are experienced as inhuman – they destroy the conditions of common humanity rather than sustain it. Jašarević’s conceptualization of debt points us to the embodied nature of indignity, a political emotion that animates much syndical activism as well as the moral logic of worker demands.

These insights inform why so many of the political tactics of these disemployed workers draw attention to and focus on their suffering. Jašarević demonstrates that economic suffering is not only embodied but relational, that seeing or hearing about others’ suffering can generate the same in the beholder, revealing a “solidarity among the bodies” (36), “an extended contiguity of a living human that thoroughly involves the self with the other when it comes to concerns over health and death” (121). Indeed, if stories or displays of suffering compel care or extensions of credit in more interpersonal contexts (such as pharmacies or among the market traders), might they not do something similar for those on hunger strike or blockading the entrance to a factory campus with a hastily constructed tent encampment? By carrying out acts that underscore their vulnerability, these workers regularly proliferate participant roles of giving and receiving care. When they receive it publicly—from fellow citizens, Red Cross volunteers, other workers/union, and individual municipal officials—they underscore both the legitimacy of their claim to be cared for and the illegitimacy of a government which refuses to give or secure such care. This may or may not succeed in moving government in desired directions, but it does sustain a critical “being-in-common” and political community in potentia.

Following Jean-Luc Nancy, Jašarević seeks political potential in “communities of disposition” that are inoperable, “potent for as long as [they] escape any formal recruitment” (140). Her examples range from the waiting rooms of various health experts to gathering among traders’ stalls in the market or around obituaries posted wherever people live and congregate. Yet it would be fruitful to read Jašarević alongside Butler’s recent theorization of the political charge of assembled precarious bodies (2015). For example, unemployed workers have regularly gathered outside of various cantonal government buildings in Tuzla, ostensibly to protest the lack of justice regarding a range of privatization- or bankruptcy-related grievances. But much of the actual time of these protests are spent in smaller groups, usually with people gathered around a worker who is sharing some detail of their lives, some implication of the injustices and injuries they face. Others form a circle, clustered around the speaker, murmuring or commenting or “nts-ntsing”. Those present may or may not know everyone assembled; some may have belonged to the same firms, many did not. These are indeed “circumstantial communities,” “at once arranged by historical, economic, and social circumstances, but also decidedly spontaneous and recurrently empathetic, caring, and sharing, effectively making a difference in how it feels to live on the edge, every day” (140). Yet such circumstantial communities do not always remain inoperable. Rather this political in potentia can emerge into effective, if provisional, forms of popular sovereignty. This happened in February 2014, where over the course of three days, a mostly routine protest of such unemployed workers in Tuzla touched off a more generalized uprising that overwhelmed state security forces, pressured the cantonal premier and his government to resign, and gave birth to the plenum, an unprecedented experiment in democratic decision-making and polity-formation. Many observers wondered at this discharge of social force and popular energy, particularly from a population long believed to be passive, precarious, and inert. It is a gift of Jašarević’s book to identify forms of being-in-common that might ground an otherwise political.


Work cited:

Butler, Judith. 2015. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Andrew Gilbert is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University, where he is also a board member of the Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition. He has published on the politics of the intervention encounter, humanitarian aid, and postsocialist transformation in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina. His current research, also in Bosnia, focuses on protest and openings and closures to political experimentation, as well as emergent forms of syndical activism after Fordism. He has just begun a collaborative, Wenner Gren-funded research project with Larisa Kurtović that explores the possibilities of using graphic forms of ethnographic research and representation to analyze the relationship between syndical politics, infrastructures of care, and the materiality of industrial production.