eipcp Policies
12 2011

Subordination and Self-Organization

Realities and Possibilities for Roma Politics in Europe

Translated by Erika Doucette

Ljubomir Bratić

Ljubomir Bratić


Erika Doucette (translation)




In the movie Roma in Austria, Harri Stojka says the following: “I want – and this is going to sound banal – people to finally realize that we are completely normal people. People always come up to me and say: ‘Oh, you’re such good musicians’ and so on … We’re completely normal people. The question actually bothers me.”[1] What Harri Stojka wishes for in the quote above – normality in the sense of equality – as obvious as it may sound, is probably something that Roma will never achieve in the current social climate. The following addresses a few reasons for this improbability.

The existence of Roma self-organizations brings a number of questions to the agenda, which are not and were not necessarily part of previous discussions on migrant self-organizations. The fact that these organizations exist means that Roma view themselves as capable of working on a discourse that concerns both them and society, i.e. positing symbolic actions and participating in theory production through which new questions emerge, questions that demand answers. On a fundamental level, one can claim that speaking about Roma self-organization is a form of revolt against the symbolic violence exerted against Roma as a group. In this regard, Roma are by all means comparable with any other minority: with women worldwide, with other autochthonous and allochthonous minorities in Austria and other entities organized as nation-states.

This revolt represents more than merely an object of examination along the lines of the debates on equality in society. It questions the existing symbolic order, it poses the thoroughly radical question of the principles of this order, and these organizations position themselves – in regards to the possibility of transforming the existing racist normality – at the nexus of the ensuing mobilization. The questions deal with the ascertainment, the understanding and the strategies for dealing with this normality. These three questions will accompany us in the deliberations that follow. It is a matter of providing a few possible answers to the question concerning the existing order and the possibilities and realities of its transformation. It is about transformation because we are not living in the best of all possible worlds, instead this world is fraught with inequality, characterized by a negative stratification along diverse axes.

General Principles of the Order

Roma is one of the stigmatized groups in society. This is a claim that can be understood across all nation-state entities where Roma live as a “minority.” As those who are addressed, Roma are also the victims of a specific form of symbolic violence. This violence is forced upon them through collective acts of categorization. These acts of categorization introduce a negative difference, a marking, and bring about a discourse that refers only to Roma and a possibility for agency for and shaped by Roma, within specific fields of action. Significantly, due to diverse “exclusions,” there is a difference in the access of the majority and of Roma to the field where public, visible participation in society is possible. It should be noted that it is not a matter of denying existence altogether, but rather a certain kind of denial of an equal public existence. These exclusions vary in regards to which minority in a society they concern. These exclusions are principally an integral part of ways of marking minorities.

Exclusion does not at all mean inhabiting a position outside, i.e. has nothing to do with what is “going on.” On the contrary: it is more about being set apart, about a kind of belonging – albeit in a form that is beyond the accepted “rules of the game.” The tactic employed here is one of “making invisible.” For a long time, Roma as a whole have been denied a legitimate existence in Austria – and the situation is not much different in other nation-state entities. Thus, by being stigmatized as “others,” they were denied the right to a legally and publically acknowledged existence by the system, by legislation, i.e. within the framework of the dominant (police) order regime. This form of domination would be, if it were merely a method of repression, i.e. if the Roma were faced only with violent oppression, clearly recognizable and could thus bring about an equally clear opposition. However, the forms of domination of subordinate subjects in modernity are of a different nature, that of governmentality. This is to say that, by way of separate measures, the population and certain groups within the population are made into agents of their own oppression. Dominance becomes self-dominance, domination through others is overridden by self-domination. In this, the dominated contribute to making themselves invisible and are content with what they are entitled to within the parameters prescribed for them.

This is what Bourdieu named the “effect of fate” (cf. Bourdieu 1998: 45-46 and 2005: 202). Exerting direct influence, the institutions of family, school, church and other institutional centers not only coerce the dominated into accepting the prevalent normality, against which they are discriminated and disadvantaged, but also into applying this normality to themselves. This effect contributes to Roma children being ashamed to introduce themselves as Roma and instead - as I was able to ascertain in a study of second-generation migrants in the 1990s in Tyrol (Viehböck/Bratić 1994) - claiming to be Italian. Such acceptance of normality is no coincidence: it is there precisely in order to provide these young people with a possible field of action. At that time, they claimed that self-denial would help them make friends and establish romantic relationships with those who belong to the majority. Therefore, they are not the ones who should be condemned for their self-denial, but rather the societal system that prompts them to inflict this kind of violence upon themselves. The Roma have a problem with the society they live in, and not the other way around, as is often claimed, that society has a problem with the Roma. The societies we live in contribute to the existence of a discriminated group called “Roma” in the first place, and if we claim to be working on the emancipation of the Roma, then first and foremost, the focus must be on transforming the existing structure of society. In this respect, working on the emancipation of Roma also means working on social transformation and thus on the emancipation of all other discriminated groups in society.

This is how Roma become Roma and also how other minorities become minorities. Whereby I understand the term “minority” as a category pertaining to power and not to demographics. A minority is the outcome of a process within an institutional context. The primary characteristic of this context is inequality, which creates a situation where there are groups in society with a smaller (or larger) share of the commons. The minorities and the majority are thus the result of a constitutive process and certainly not unalterable entities, as is often professed. In this sense, we are dealing with the results of historical power struggles, which – and this is an important postulate for the theory of political anti-racism – could have turned out differently. And if it could have been so then, there is no reason that it could not become different today.

Historicization as a strategy

I mentioned earlier that the majority employs a strategy of “making invisible.” Therefore, the demand for visibility – that, within the context of self-organizations, is somewhat of a main motive – must be regarded as one of their central characteristics. The exclamation “We are here through and through!” must be transferred to the public and produce something like a permanent echo as a sign of the transformations of this public.

The normality of Roma and other minorities, which presents itself as eternal, is the outcome of a process of eternal perpetuation. Thus, the idea is not—except perhaps on a strategic level – to ascribe essential properties or characteristics to Roma, not even as a gesture of positive “philoziganism.” Instead, it must be understood that although normality presents itself as consisting of invariable and permanent structures, it is a system that developed historically and has been passed down through history to this day. The history of the Roma is a history of the progressive constitution of objective and subjective structures of dominance, and of the valid civic subject with a clearly distinguishable nationality. Those of us who are committed to a critical view of normality and to its transformation must concern ourselves with the question of who assumes this position of dominance, under what circumstances, how, why and by what means. It is important to comprehend how structures of dominance have been continually perpetuated over space and time and generations, and how they have come to appear so self-evident, as normality.

In this regard, it can be claimed that the official Roma history, as we know it to this day, is a history of the state apparatus. It is, as Bourdieu puts it, “a history of agents and institutions which permanently contribute to maintenance of these permanences.” (2002: 83) It is the history of the impact of all state and civil institutions, the importance of which naturally varies from epoch to epoch, although they constantly remain in place to make certain sociopolitical, economic and cultural segmentations appear as the social normality. This is a social facticity, which is the outcome of  of of an ongoing process dealing with several different smaller and larger power shifts in society. Politically, expressed in categories of power, they make up a compromise, a generally accepted consensus.

The main question in regards to a consensus is the extent of its sustainability. The dominant work on sustaining and perpetuating consensus, employing the method of naturalizing injustice, a technique of producing it along the lines of eternal perpetuation. However, the dominated – those formerly stratified functionalities that were able to accumulate a political and thus conflictual subjectivity along the lines of social deterritorialization – strive to confound precisely these strategies of perpetuation and to replace them with a historicizing point of view. This point of view implies that the actors’ situation is a product of social developments and could just as well have turned out differently. This insight into the possibility of a different and better sociopolitical, cultural and altogether general circumstance is the transition of the actors’ position, from working in service to working along the lines of self-emancipation.

The central position of every struggle against discrimination is the renewed discovery of the equality of all. However, this position is threatened by many misconceptions: I remember a discussion with a Roma activist about cooperating with a civil society organization of the Austrian majority. He said: “They can never comprehend our situation.” I agreed with him and added: “The laws stand between us.” Bourdieu describes this contiguity as a “different distances from necessity” (Bourdieu 1984: 32). It has to do with the different relationships to the world, which forms of existence are able to take which liberties in regards to the dominant necessities. Not everyone can distance themselves from dominant necessities. To not think about ways out of the material necessities and to act accordingly is a luxury that only few people in this world can afford. Because of this, different groups within society develop different approaches, based on the circumstances that characterize their everyday lives. Which forms of solidarity can be established between whom depends, among other things, on the real (forced) circumstances that individuals and groups live under. A considerable number of Roma in Austria and Europe are subject to racist immigration legislation, which is constantly becoming more restrictive, and act within these parameters.

So, if the activities and actions of people are to be comprehended, judged or explained by someone without taking into consideration the facticities of this existence, the outcome will merely be a mirroring of one’s own conceptions. This is to say that the “practical sense” (Bourdieu 1984) of a Roma organization primarily lies in mitigating or stabilizing the legal situation under which its members live. The expectations of the individual activists depend upon their sociopolitical, economic and cultural situations. Although they are indeed subjects of their actions, they are not comparable with subjects of universal social activity, because they have developed very specific survival and assertion mechanisms by belonging to groups that are subject to very specific social fabrics and subordinated to very specific processes of subjectification.

Whatever Roma and other “minorities” are, and everything they do – regardless of the context – is marked by the fact that they don’t belong to the dominant side, but to the side of the dominated.[2] Precisely this position entails a number of attempts to escape it. Two opposing poles of these (re-)actions are over-assimilation, which is carried out to the point of denying one’s belonging to a certain group, and the over-identification and essentialization of the group. Neither of these two escapes the stigma because it is an integral component of social relations – meaning that which they are. The dilemma of minorities that are organized along the lines of minority politics is the same everywhere: What possibilities do I have, based on the attributes given to me by others and myself, to constitute the “I” (cf. Mead 1993: 197), to contribute making this “I” different? In a utopian version, this “I” – which is also a WE—would no longer exist in the current form, as that which is dominated. How can there be political work toward removing the self from discriminated positions within society? This question, in my opinion, is central for any critical examination of the position of Roma in our societies.

Under these circumstances, roughly outlined here, what Harri Stojka wished for in the quote at the beginning of this text – that Roma finally be recognized and acknowledged as “normal people” – is a difficult, lengthy and by no means conflict-free endeavor.

This text is based on a lecture held on 25 November 2011 at the conference “Romanistan – Crossing Spaces in Europe. On the situation of Roma in Europe: Self-organization and self-empowerment.” The conference was held in Vienna, Austria and organized by IG Kultur Österreich.



Bourdieu, Pierre (2002): Masculine Domination. Trans. Richard Nice. Stanford University Press. Stanford.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984): Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Harvard University Press. Cambridge.

Bratić, Ljubomir (2010): Politischer Antirassismus. Selbstorganisation, Historisierung als Strategie und diskursive Interventionen. Vienna.

Mead, G. H. (1975): Geist, Identität und Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main.

Viehböck, Eveline/Bratić, Ljubomir (1994): Die zweite Generation. Migrantenjugendliche im deutschsprachigen Raum. Innsbruck.


[1] Harri Stojka, film: Roma in Austria. www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHPL3m0IINQ&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PL8A7347F2C96ABE2E (Accessed 15. November 2011)

[2] The efforts of the European Commission in Brussels should also be assessed in reference to this. The fundamentally rational character of the declaration “EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020” (http://ec.europa.eu/justice/policies/discrimination/.../com_2011_173_en.pdf) from 5 April 2011 loses its validation through an effect of double negation. Firstly, this is because these recommendations come “from above” and bear the handwriting of the existing dominant discourse of order that reveals their alliance with a series of centuries old attempts to solve the “Roma question” through normalizing and creating norms for the Roma. Secondly, what renders such prescribed measures ineffective from the outset is that it is left up to nation state institutions to implement them transnationally. In this way, the rationality of a European discourse of order ends up being situated in an interstice, located in between the Roma’s position as the actor and the rationality of the nation state. The danger of the activities attached to this strategy is that they will primarily be utilized by wealthy states (where there is only a small number of Roma living legally and a large number illegalized) to increase the pressure on the poorer states (where the situation of the Roma living there is the other way around) in order to solve the so-called problem of “illegality.” Instrumentalizing the “Roma” to put pressure on weaker European states is a practice that has yet to be addressed in social and political science research, while, there are a considerable number of artistic documents (such as Želimir Žilnik’s film Kenedi Goes Back Home, 2003) that deal with the effects of this geopolitical power play.

With support of the Federal Ministry for Arts, Education and Culture, IA/4.