Shifting Landscapes: On Remnants, Echoes, and Potentialities of the Histories of Non-Alignment

In Dialogue with "Two Meetings and a Funeral"

One of the most pertinent questions posited in Naeem Mohaiemen’s 2017 work Two Meetings and a Funeral is that of looking back to a world past: how to transmit the knowledge and memory of a world non-aligned? At a time when these questions are ever more pressing, Mohaiemen’s film is an important reminder of the complexities and layered nature of the past: when facing the divided world of the twentieth century, it is of utmost importance not to default the Cold War conditions to a dialectic between the East and the West, for there was a whole, third world just south of them, likewise entangled in these power relations.

Yugoslavia is only tangentially featured in Two Meetings and a Funeral. However, given the peculiarity of its position—a socialist, Eastern European country with a decentralized system, conflicted with the USSR, and thus open towards the West and the Third World; one of the initiators of the Non-Aligned Movement—bringing it in dialogues with the events explored in the film can pave the way for articulating paradigms of understanding for the present, and towards the future.

For most of those who came after the generations that lived the Third World, and especially those living outside its “boundaries,” Non-Alignment is an unknown: merely a phrase, a concept overheard in passing, at best. The Third World, correspondingly, from a rather Eurocentric point of view, is more of an umbrella term for the so-called “developing countries,” that share a trouble rather than a struggle. With the end of the Cold War, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) further dissolved the strength and power of the movement itself: even though it still exists, both the political and scientific interest in it and its principles have ever since been symptomatically low. However, with the rise across generations of sociological, political, and historical research on leftist projects and their interrelations, and especially those looking at the everyday of these socialist pasts1, there is also place for the re-evaluation of NAM: investigations of its various levels, implications, and reverberations, and the re-appropriation of some of them for the present.

Here, a method for such observation of past principles is proposed through the prism of French philosopher and urban sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s trialectics of space. In his 1974 book, The Production of Space (La production de l’espace), Lefebvre argues that the first usage of single-point perspective in the paintings of the Siena School arises from a much wider social change that also transformed the relations of urban and rural spaces in Tuscany. That is, a change in the relationship between town and country, and how the physical space between them was organized, catalyzes the laws of perspective, which, in turn, partakes in the development of a new understanding (or: perception) of space: the triad, or the trialectic of physical—mental—social space.2 Lefebvre uses this example in order to depict the interdependency of spatial practices providing a certain “representation of space” which was further found in “lived spaces:” how each one influences, but is at the same time a “function” of the other two. To claim that the places of non-alignment were subject to the shifting of global political landscapes is to say that this rupture happened across the three levels of space (physical, mental, and social, or, for the purpose of this analysis: tangible, political, and everyday). To explore them, it is crucial to establish the importance of their (tangible) remnants, (political) echoes, and (everyday) potentialities.

One of the sessions of the 1961 meeting. © Museum of Yugoslavia, Belgrade

 

On Non-Aligned Meetings. Beyond the Memories of History

The idea of non-alignment itself can be traced back at least to 1955, when the Bandung Conference took place in Indonesia with the goal of promoting Asian-African cooperation, especially in opposing colonialism and neocolonialism. The principles of this conference were revisited one year later by the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser; the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru; and the President of the SFRY, Josip Broz Tito in the Brijuni Islands. This meeting would pave the way to the 1961 formative Conference of the Non-Aligned States.

When representatives of twenty-eight countries gathered for the Non-Aligned Movement’s founding conference in Belgrade in September of 1961, the Cold War was in full swing. The founding, Belgrade Conference of Non-Aligned countries, like many thereafter, was an event many voices of which—even though not in perfect harmony—were heard over the world in unison, and to different reactions. Despite the various struggles, there was a significant level of agreement among the leaders of the states gathered in Belgrade. They settled on several postulates of foreign policy, mostly as a Third World response to the Cold War division into two blocs as well as nuclear threats. In other words, a call to non-alignment: non-membership in any military or ideological bloc dominated by one of the great powers; a commitment to equality in relations between nations, large and small, powerful and weak; the right of every country to self-determination; avoidance of force as a method of settling international disputes; focus on economic development; condemnation of colonialism (not disregarding economic subjection in the framework of colonization, whether in states which were never—formally—colonized, or those crippled by economic aid as a neocolonial practice).3

The Non-Aligned Movement wasn’t born in Belgrade—but it did make some of its first steps in the capital of Yugoslavia, symbolically: not only politically, but also geographically placed in-between the blocs and “within” the Iron Curtain. Often also referred to as the Yugoslav experiment, hybrid, or bastarde, it truly was a land of contradictions: though politically increasingly near to the newly-freed countries of Asia and Africa, Yugoslavia was economically, financially, technologically, and in terms of trade still closely related to the West, and especially the Western (mostly American) post-WWII financial aid.

Obelisk erected on the occasion of the Belgrade Conference in Marx-Engels-Square, 1961 © Museum of Yugoslavia, Belgrade

 

The leaders of the non-aligned countries made it one of their primary responsibilities at the Belgrade Conference to make their call for peace heard. The day after the Conference ended, a group of eight heads of state composed identical letters to Kennedy and Khrushchev, followed by meetings between Khrushchev, Nehru, and Nkrumah in Moscow, and Kennedy, Sukarno, and Keita in Washington DC. Though it is hard to evaluate exactly the reverberations of these events, both the US President and the Soviet Premier felt the need to reply to the letters and later refer to the meetings.4

Another “mission” of the Conference was to identify and enhance the non-aligned position in the world by extending it from the (1955) Bandung principle of continental affiliation, despite the Asian-African group’s significant numbers in the UN: with the inclusion of Yugoslavia, Cyprus, and Cuba as members, and Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador as observers, as well as the exclusion of aligned Philippines, Thailand, and Turkey, the stage was set for more states to gravitate towards the non-aligned (bloc-free) group from Belgrade. And that they did: as the movement grew, the meetings of its members continued to take place at a relatively regular pace—until the end of the twentieth century, almost all of them would be three years apart; notably, however, the gap between the second (United Arab Republic, 1964) and third (Zambia, 1970) was six whole years. This large gap was by no means accidental; the road of NAM’s members towards the movement’s founding was conditioned and shaped by the actions of the great forces, as was the life of the movement itself. The global events at the end of the sixties in a similar way influenced NAM’s activities as the post-WWII events did its founding.

For instance, even though it was the heads of India, Egypt, and Yugoslavia who “materialized” the initial steps towards non-alignment, the Bandung Conference provided two other key individuals in these efforts: U Nu, Prime Minister of Burma and Sukarno, President of Indonesia, both of whom Josip Broz Tito visited during his Asian tour as part of the new Yugoslav politics of non-alignment. Tito’s effort to nurture and grow the relations to the countries of the Third World started after the Yugoslav-USSR break of 1948. India, Egypt, and Indonesia were at the end of the forties and the beginning of the fifties all dependent on Soviet trade and investments, and were very careful about their interactions with Yugoslavia. Despite the words of praise and mutual appreciation they expressed on many occasions, it wasn’t until Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent normalization of relations between Yugoslavia and the USSR that India and Indonesia opened an embassy and a diplomatic mission (respectively) in Yugoslavia. This “reconciliation” between Yugoslavia and the USSR, was, on the other hand, met with disdain, not only in the “western countries,” but also in socialist Burma, whose government was very much opposed to the Soviet version of socialism. Similarly, all of these countries’ role in the movement would be shaped by aid from the West, primarily the US as well.

Another case in point for the influence of great powers and global events is narrated in Two Meetings and a Funeral: after Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, NAM-co-founding-member Saudi Arabia started a campaign to punish it for separating from “Islamic” Pakistan (one of the main postulates established in Belgrade, and determining the NAM was the right of each nation to self-determine and non-involvement in internal politics of other countries). Reactions didn’t lack in the West or the East: China vetoed the UN membership of Bangladesh, while Nixon’s White House blocked grain shipments to the country, causing a famine that killed thousands. Faced with almost impossible odds of making it, Bangladesh turned to NAM for membership and was welcomed into the movement at the 1973 Conference in Algeria. The Saudi Bloc, however, pushed for the increased influence of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), whose agenda included neutering the NAM’s call for support to liberation movements. As Pakistan was chosen for the host of the following year’s OIC conference, preventing India’s presence over Kashmir, Bangladesh was desperate for an influx of funds and conditioned with the recognition of its independence in attending as an Islamic country, breaking with India5, and thus—as one of the protagonists of in the film, Zonayed Saki notes—hurting NAM.

This dependence of NAM on the actions and politics of the big forces was especially evident during its crises. As historian Hrvoje Klasić writes in Yugoslavia and the World 1968, between 1964 and 1970, the increased activities of the great forces (namely, the USA and the USSR), as well as China, France, and the UK in the international political scene, along with the bilateral conflicts within the movement and the inner crises of different member-countries6 led to the rise of doubts not only over the ways in which the movement would further function, but also over the purpose of and need for its very existence.

Tito nonetheless felt encouraged to increase Yugoslavia’s contribution to the preservation of the movement, and in early 1968 he embarked on diplomatic visits to both member-countries and the countries which did not entirely lead a non-aligned foreign policy (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, UAR on one hand; Iran, Japan, Mongolia, Pakistan on the other). Looking westwards, most hopes were put in the French president Charles de Gaulle; two years earlier (1966), the Fifth Republic intended to showcase its independent foreign politics by leaving NATO. This act itself was considered a hit to the bloc politics, and France’s approach to NAM would be considered an important step in the strengthening of the movement, especially because of its still strong influence in its former colonies. However, de Gaulle’s actions on this question were forestalled by the 1968 events in Paris, and other cities in France, Europe, and the world.7

One must bear in mind, however, that the myriads of meetings which interweaved the road towards—as well as the life of—the Non-Aligned Movement, to a great extent represent instances of relations of power: a top-down space, a representation of socio-political relations. On the other hand, recognizing that these are not historical events set in the stone of memory, one should observe them, along with and against, the instances of everyday life—as a social space. In order to do that, and to establish the importance of place (and, by association, platiality), one must, also—as per the triad of spaces originated by Lefebvre—bind these with the current and unfoldings of physical space.

 

On Place. Beyond the Remnants of Spaces

The final part of Two Meetings and a Funeral includes a brief story of a conference center built in Bangladesh when the country was chosen as host for a Non-Aligned summit in 1982. When the summit was postponed, the name of the venue changed to China Friendship Center, only to later again be changed into Bangabandhu Center,today available to rent for events, celebrations, and trade fairs. The SIV Building (Savezno izvršno veće, Federal Executive Council; today: Palace of Serbia), which was finished for the Constitutive Conference of Non-Aligned States in 1961, now stands empty and unused in its 50-hectare plot of land in New Belgrade. Some fifteen minutes by foot from there, the Sava Centar (famous for hosting the 9th Non-Aligned Summit that also took place in Belgrade, although it wasn’t constructed for this occasion) is now in the process of being privatized; a faith similar to many similar spaces, in Belgrade and beyond, is expected for it: luxury housing and/or acquisition by an international hotel chain.8

Josip Broz Tito showing other NAM heads of state the newly-finished SIV Building, where one of the sessions of the founding conference of the NAM also took place. © Museum of Yugoslavia, Belgrade

 

Very much honoring the Lefebvrian triad of physical-mental-social space, and keeping in mind the many faces of possible readings surrounding socialist histories (including that of NAM), I propose a (trialectic) model focused on the places of the everyday across history: a model of platiality, if you will, centered on spatial-temporal determinants relative to all (physical, mental, social) spaces. From there, I take platiality as a technique to read history across the three currents of its spaces (tangible, political, everyday). Platiality (linguistically completing the space-spatiality9/place- equation) is understood here as a technique to re-evaluate concepts and paradigms of the past in relation to the multiplicities and complexities they were simultaneously constituting and being constituted by (e.g. multiplicities of voices, and complexities of opposing individual interests of states in NAM). Platiality thus refers to a place that is seen in its temporality, in which we can discern all three simultaneous levels of space: a place which one observes historically, in order to translate it for today. With the Non-Aligned Movement, as with numerous socialist principles, the (often conflicting) conditions before, at, and around it stand in a similar interdependency to Lefebvre’s trialectic (physical, mental, social) of space.

Platiality keeps the everyday in the center of its effort at measuring history, while, at the same time, keeping in mind the far ends of each of its “ruler(s).” Radicalisms of any side inevitably end up clashing with the other; bottom-up and top-down principles very often end up overlapping in form, structure, and content alike. Such as, when in- the request of Yugoslav students and artists in 196810 for a true self-management, on one hand, and the official, constitutional self-management on the other, Yugoslav protesters formed self-managed committees to organize their day-to-day actions, a model which would later permeate the everyday spaces with the place(!)-communities11 across the country. In-between the great forces’ manipulations of their more-or-less officially dependent countries, and the power plays the heads of non-aligned states, there were always (also due to economic and other hidden motifs behind them) the everyday lives of Eastern European workers going to work in the Third World and, reversely, students from these very countries coming to study in Eastern Europe. In these lived spaces of the everyday was (and, perhaps, remains) the truly functional potentiality of the idea of platiality.

If spatiality presupposes a relation to space, platiality must presuppose a relation to different levels of space, at a certain moment in time, and within its relation to the social and political contexts of that moment and of today. Platialities imply bringing together the minutes of meetings, the echoes of protests, the ruins of structures; they imply the binding and the dissection of the top-down and bottom-up alike, within the framework of the everyday, as it had been lived and as it is being lived, simultaneously. It is by looking at the platialities across history that we bring concepts of the past into the present, and for the future. This is, as well, exactly what Two Meetings and a Funeral sets to do.

 

On Looking back and Learning from. Provisional Conclusions

The Non-Aligned Movement was not one based on principles of neutrality. Non-Alignment, in its early days, was envisioned as an active policy of not joining the great blocs, which implied taking a strong stance in international politics: before most other postulates, a call for a global nuclear disarmament. This postulate, so strongly emphasized at the Belgrade conference, is telling of the approach to non-alignment of the movement’s heads of states: the next year, Cuba allowed Soviet nuclear heads to be installed on the island; several years later, India officially began its own long-planned nuclear program; like many other NAM members, but maybe more so than them, and despite its many criticisms and proclamations, Yugoslavia still avoided, politically and economically, to non-align, rather than bi-align.

IMG_5002
New Belgrade 2017. A plaque marking the offices of the place-community “Paris Commune” and a painted over sign “Youth Cooperative Beograd.” Photo by Uroš Pajović

Such and similar false stances, which went hand-in-hand with both outside pressures (the bigger forces’ influences, funds, and conditionings) and internal cracks (differences between heads of states of NAM, as well as conflicting national interests), paint a picture of a loosely organized, sometimes hypocritical movement, a grouping of politicians partaking in a struggle for power, influence, and, ultimately, even forms of alignment themselves; an ever more top-down political performance unable to escape, or affect, the shifting landscapes of global politics.

To observe only NAM’s shortcomings, on the other hand, would be unfair. More than anything, it gave the right of voice and a nudge towards empowerment to many countries who hadn’t felt they’d deserved it before. As Prarthana Kashinath writes in “Why the Non-Aligned Movement Needs to Be Resuscitated,” “in its formative years in the 1960s, its primary plank was opposition to military alliances and support to disarmament. In the following decade, i.e., 1970s, NAM expressed solidarity against neocolonialism, and endorsed the New International Economic Order. In the 1980s it opposed apartheid and racism in the context of African anti-imperial struggle.”12

The Non-Aligned Movement was not a solely socialist project. It included states and government of many forms and convictions. If observed, however, from the context of Yugoslavia and several other of the Movement’s members, socialism was one of its distinct principles. Keeping that in mind, to say that the everyday we seek has not survived any of the shifts in global political landscapes would be unjustly pessimistic. To say that it exists only in memories of the people who look at it through pink-colored glasses would be unnecessarily dramatic.

Looking back at NAM, much like other principles of—socialist—solidarity is important, particularly from the point of post-Yugoslav space today: to look beyond the absurdly unfolded breakup of a country, to understand its in-between-ness, past politics, but within the real day-to-day life, which still exists in relatively recent memory. One should, however, be wary of a dual trap when looking back at socialist principles: on one hand, one should avoid being blinded by the mistakes, misconceptions, and even horrors some of its iterations generated in order to recognize its successes and principles worthy of being brought into the present, and for the future. On the other hand, one needs to be careful of not getting entangled in a nostalgic romanticizing of the socialist pasts and their charming (even riveting) proclamations, speeches, and postulates.

“This is a war against forgetting,” says Vijay Prashad at the very end of Two Meetings and a Funeral. In order to do that, one must appropriate both the pastel nostalgias and the obscure betrayals of socialist histories (including non-alignment) and use them as guideposts towards these platialities, the weak points of society (to borrow, one final time, from Lefebvre); one must seek and reclaim the poetic prosaic, and its revolutionary potential, too.

 

 

About the author

Uroš Pajović works and researches in and around architecture and urban theory, with a focus on the politics of space, visual arts and spatial self-management. He also writes short stories and peotry, loves Californian toponyms and odonyms, and always crosses the street on red.

 

 

Notes

  1. See, among others, Bini Adamczak’s Gestern morgen, Branislav Jakovljević’s Alienation Effects, Catherine Samary’s Communisme en mouvement, Imanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini’s Ours to Master and to Own, the Non-Aligned Modernisms series from the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade, Prelom Magazine; also, the revived interest in Henri Lefebvre’s writings on space and the everyday, see: Urban Revolution Now edited by Łukasz Stanek, Christian Schmid and Ákos Moravánszky, Autogestion, or Henri Lefebvre in New Belgrade edited by Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber, Henri Lefebvre on Space edited by Łukasz Stanek, Klaus Ronneberger’s Peripherie und Ungleichzeitigkeit, State, Space, World edited by Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden.
  2. L’espace perçu—l’espace conçu—l’espace vécu (perceived, conceived, lived). Perceived space, per Lefebvre, is the physical space around us cum how it is used. The conceived space implies meddling of powers-at-large: capital and state, bureaucracy, blueprints. Lived, or social space, implies social interactions and actions at the scale of the everyday: the desires, dreams and memories of the dwellers.
  3. Archive of Yugoslavia. KPR (837), I-4-a/K-202
  4. Homer A. Jack, Belgrade – The Conference of Non-Aligned States (New York, NY: The National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, c1961), 34.
  5. Three Meetings and a Funeral. Three-channel film by Naeem Mohaiemen.
  6. “Given that the member-countries were mostly states in which the individual at power had enormous authority in creating domestic and foreign policies, the ‘personnel changes in these countries left a mark on the whole Movement – e.g. Nehru’s death, the removal of Nkhrumah and Ben Bella, Sukarno’s forced abdication.” Klasić, Hrvoje. Jugoslavija i svijet 1968 (Zagreb: Naklada Ljevak, 2012), 390-92.
  7. Ibid.
  8. The SIV Building was the subject of artistic works such as Jasmina Cibic’s video work Tear Down and Rebuild, Dušan Đorđević’s photographic series SIV: Time Capsule, Vesna Pavlović’s photographic exhibition Collection/Kolekcija, as well as research on socialist architecture (principles) in Yugoslavia and beyond by Vladimir Kulić and Ljiljana Blagojević, to name a few. The Sava Centar’s transitional state and the work of its maintenance personnel is also the subject of Ivan Marković’s 2018 film Waiting Place.
  9. As in: concepts of, or relating to space.
  10. Their demand sought a stricter, more extensive implementation of the self-managed industrial and social principles throughout society at large (which, despite already present within the state’s constitution, proved to be increasingly formal and passive).
  11. As the official policy in Yugoslavia, self-management divided the society into the “working class” (the carriers of power), “working people” (employees in state-owned institutions) and “citizens” who “could act only on the level of their local territorial units, while the other “sociopolitical” associations were reserved for working people only” as noted by Zoran Erić in “The Third Way: The Experiment of Workers’ Self-Management in Yugoslavia,” published in Autogestion, or Henri Lefebvre in New Belgrade (edited by Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber). It was this, territorial level of self-management (most directly enacted in mesne zajednice, or place-communities, parts of the urban space smaller than municipalities or even neighborhoods) where we encounter the most immediate, truly felt implementation of theoretical implications of self-management – this, before anything else, meant that the affected acteurs and their interests were present, rather than represented; secondly, all strata of Yugoslav society were implied and involved in this level of self-management.
  12. Prarthana Kashinath, “Why the Non-Aligned Movement Needs to Be Resuscitated,” The Diplomat, October 20, 2016. https://thediplomat.com/2016/10/why-the-non-aligned-movement-needs-to-be-resuscitated/.

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