Principles II – how to get to not having them

Last year the first Student Parliament of Belgrade University (SPBU) was formed, along with the first Student Parliaments in the faculties within the University. Although I was very active in my local Student Parliament at the time, I was wary of taking part in SPBU, basically for two reasons:

1) any body formed from representatives of lesser bodies which are not working properly will almost certainly not work properly, Being already very busy, I wouldn’t be able to dedicate enough time to it to make a difference, and in any case I would be prevented by the second reason:

2) this is an important body, and is thus something which attracts a certain kind of person that I loathe; “politikants”.

A “politikant” is a politician who is in politics only for the power and the money. It’s interesting that we have such a word in Serbian, since everyone here has a very bad opinion for most, if not all, of our politicians i.e. we think they’re all politikants.

Watching the Parliament sessions on TV, I always wondered how those people became so shamelessly unprincipled, hypocritical and vulgar, how they could so shamelessly waste so much time arguing among themselves, just so they can humiliate their opponents. Well, after my experience with the SPBU, it all became so very clear.

The SPBU, being actually important in the world of student activism, got the attention of the youth section of the party whose boss was head of the previous Government. Which, by the way, is absolutely nothing unusual in Serbia. All positions of any importance, even down to a principal’s seat in a primary school, are something which the political parties are after. This expands the influence of the party and it’s one of the essential ways of rewarding the party’s members.

I remember a talk I had with one at-the-time high-profile politician who’s not a politikant; he told me how he was sent all across Serbia to educate the members of the local headquarters of his party on a certain important topic he’s an expert in, and every time he gave his talk the members had the same bored look and they would at one point, without fail, ask: “Ok, that’s all well and nice, but when will we get the important positions in our local school/factory/public company?”.

In any case, as I said, the politikants were after the important positions in the SPBU. Running against them were members of one of the two big student organizations in Serbia. I sided with them on the lesser-evil basis – I worked with some of the people in the organization and I knew they were good people, even though there were also lots of, you guessed it, politikants in that organization.

I didn’t want any position or influence in the SPBU itself. I simply wanted the good guys (ok, the less bad guys) to win, because they would hopefully do some actual work, and actual work is something which we’ve never had enough of in student activism. However, a guy from that organization wanted one of the top positions in the SPBU and he swayed the rest of the people to follow his plan, which involved negotiating a risky deal with the politikants. I hated the whole principle of such negotiations, believing that we could win the positions through a clean we-have-skills-and-experience-and-we-don’t-like-shady-deals campaign.

Of course, as the Joker would say, as long as “it’s all part of a plan”, people will comply. So, they decided to trust this guy and his confidence in his shady deals, this guy who didn’t really have to lose anything – he would either get his looks-great-in-a-CV top position (and would thus also have to occasionally help his organization, which is why they counted on him) and give the rest of the positions to the politikants, or he would not get the position and, well, that would be that. His CV already looked cool, and it’s time to move on to larger things, and who cares about other people who are counting on you since you’re not going to be spending much time around them anymore, right?

Of course, when you’re playing alone and trying to be cunning and you’re going against a group people who’ve got way more experience than you in shady deals, you’re going to fucking lose. Big time. All the positions were taken up by the politikants, and what then proceeded was a year of bickering and almost no work being done. One of the first big issues was the fact that the President of SPBU and the Student vice-dean of the University were both from the youth section of a certain political party, as I previously mentioned; in fact, they’re from the Executive board of the Belgrade section. Since it’s highly unethical (and I think even illegal) to mix politics and universities, you can see why some people were pissed that this was happening, and they called out the young politikants.

Well, the young politikants tried to solve the issue by “freezing” their positions, as we would say here, which is a nice way of saying “We get to keep our old positions while we’re enjoying our new ones, and then we can get back to the old ones when our term here is over”.

There’s a point to my telling this whole story, and I’ll get there, but there’s one more example which needs to be told, because it shows possibly the essence of what I’m talking about:

Half a year ago I was working on the project proposal of a really big project in student activism, and thus said SPBU politikants were also involved. At one point a problem arose with them, and, well, I must use the following explanation to give you the full force of the stupidity of their arguments concerning the issue:

Imagine that you’re building a rocket, and you naturally need an astronaut, and the requirement set by the funders is that he must be from your country. You realize that you’ve only got one academy for astronauts, privately owned. Luckily, they’re all qualified experts, and so naturally you offer them the job, which they happily accept.

However, there are people in a political party who don’t like the academy’s ideological orientation, which is by the way pretty much in line with the funders’, and they decide to try and stop the academy from getting it’s astronauts hired. Their argument is this: “We’re doing the academy a favor by paying their astronauts for flying our rocket. Who cares that we’re getting the money from our funders for paying them, we simply shouldn’t hire them; especially when we’ve got perfectly good 19-year old nerds who’ve played them video-games with space simulators and such, which makes them highly experienced in rocket flying, and they’ll do it for free!”

I’m not kidding. Their arguments were basically this stupid. However, someone in their party didn’t want the experts to get the job, and they sent their lackeys on a mission to make it not happen.

So, I’m sitting there with the other project writers, normal, smart people who are very much aware of what’s going on, and I’m watching them oblitirate the young politikants with common-sense arguments. I’m looking at the young politikants, in their early 20s, as old as me or maybe a year or two older, people who like me go out, hang out with their friends, goddammnit they’re young people just like me doing all the normal things we students do!

I’m watching the transformation happening before my eyes. I’m watching them almost managing to hide the fact that they’re completely aware of the stupidity of their arguments. But they can’t, not yet. They crack an uncomfortable smile here and there. Their faces twitch, their eyes bear a sad look – just for a moment, but we all see it.

And then the twitches are gone.

Here are supposedly normal people of my age, on a mission from their political party to fight for something they know is wrong, with arguments they know are stupid. But, and this is what horrified me, at that very moment they were also practicing to not really care. They’re practicing how to do what the party tells you to do, no matter how stupid or unprincipled the act is, because that’s how politics are done in Serbia – if you can get the job done, you get the nice position with the good salary and the big comfy chair. They’re happy that they’ll get those rewards, and who cares if you have to sacrifice a principle or two along the way?

So, that’s that. That’s the slow transformation of a young person into an unprincipled shell. And the reason it’s happening is because that’s how everyone is doing it, that’s what you need to do to survive in politics and life; because no one can imagine the whole system working on a different set of rules; and even when you’re aware the current system is awful, well, you’ve earned your place in it and there’s not much point now in trying saw off the branch you’re sitting on, right?

Well, I think it doesn’t have to be like that. I think I can propose an alternative solution which is beyond naive idealism. It requires a lot of work and sacrifice, but hey, was there ever a time when fighting for the Right Thing was easy?

I’m still in the process defining it, and I won’t be done any time soon, but I believe I’ve managed to define it’s basis. More on that in the next few days.

5 Responses to “Principles II – how to get to not having them”

  1. I have to add something to this. It is not only the lack of time of the people operating simultaneously in the “lower” and the “higher” body that impedes the efficiency of the “higher” one. It might hinder efficiency of some lower ones as well. At the same time it is the question of individual priorities and preferences of the individuals commissioned to the university level. Also, organisation matters, i.e. how the system is organised, it may be more or less efficiency-friendly. Etc.

    But this is not my point, though. My question for you might be something like this: which one of the two is more likely to facilitate your goals in that business?

  2. I agree with your thoughs. I must also add that I am saddened that I haven’t really met anyone who is successfully working on both the “lower” and “higher” levels at the same time, as I believe such a person would have an excellent perspective on the current state of affairs of our student activism.

    The answer on your question depends on whether the question was for me personally, as in for my personal goals, or is it a question on my opinion on such matters in general. I’m guessing it’s the first one, but I’ll answer both 🙂

    Personally, at the moment, working at the local level (the Philological Faculty) is much better for me – there is practically no powerplay between students and my ideas and projects are supported by the administration, so mostly the success of my projects will depend on me. Yes, there is always the element of chance, whether or not I’ll end up working with cool people, but in my experience, on the local level people are generally ok to work with (i.e. they didn’t have the time to become bad :).
    You are well aware of the amount of powerplay on the University level among the student representatives, not to mention between the Student Parliament and the administrative bodies of the University. There I would have active resistance from people who REALLY want those positions for the sake of having them and improving their CV, and I think I would simply waste to much of my energy arguing with them and not achieving anything significant.

    On a general level, it’s difficult to say which of the levels is better, simply because it largely depends both on the individual and the system in question. I told you about my case, but if you want any more answers, you’ll have to give me some other real-life situations.


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