by Mitko Mitkovic
In a recent post, protest dynamics in Bulgaria, a country that has long been characterized by relative calm despite widespread social misery, were highlighted.
In trying to grasp the welter of contradictions shaking the Bulgarian body politic and citizens’ harried consciousness, it would be useful to translate the full text of the German article in Der Standard (http://goo.gl/4ZzrmK) for transition, it makes some points more clearly than the brief translation posted here earlier. But let me comment on several prime paradoxes of the present protest at this juncture in Bulgaria’s disastrous post-socialist freefall.
Paradox 1: Radical left, organized labor invisible in Europe’s poorhouse
Writing in Aljazeera, Popov (http://goo.gl/vEmbU) thinks the Bulgarian style of mass protests may represent a potential new ‘Facebook’d’ “highly civilized” face for European dissent, but he is wondrously myopic: nowhere in Europe is there no radical left on the streets in popular protest against an elected government, except Bulgaria. Nowhere in Europe and many other parts of the globe in turmoil are protests against poverty and corruption without substantial trade union support, except in Bulgaria. Is this a weakness of protests, as many on the Left would claim?
Certainly, the near total absence of Marxist socialist discourse and organizing in the poorest economy in Europe is a dialectical contradiction of staggering proportions. From the viewpoint of a position that recognizes organized labor as one of the indispensible elements of popular struggles with the potential of success, the answer is clear: protesters will have to go a long way until they will reach a more profoundly rooted position of critique that can outline the scope of a real alternative to the problems they are reacting to.
Where is Left analysis of the Bulgarian morass along the lines of Antarsya in Greece, for example, or Syriza, and concomitant left activism? Basically nowhere in Bulgaria aside from the tiny virtually invisible Balgarska Levitca (http://www.levicata.org ), a miniscule new left formation that polled less than 0.2% in the May 12th elections, in the heart of Europe’s poorhouse. Few anarchists are visible, and indymedia Bulgaria is barely active even online with any solid critique in Bulgarian, surprising (http://bulgaria.indymedia.org).
Yet this is Europe’s acknowledged poorhouse, once perhaps its most successful ‘real-existing socialist’ people’s republic, at least in the keen existential memory of many Bulgarians born 1970 and earlier.
Wages and pensions in Bulgaria are now among the lowest not just in the EU, but in much of the industrial world. Nearly 25% of the population are living at or below the poverty line of 110 Euro equivalent per person (http://goo.gl/kZywgC). The medical system is in a shambles, emigration abroad is now nearing 20% over the past two decades of capitalist restoration, a record for any population in Europe. Some cities, such as Vidin and Silistra on the Danube, have lost 30% of their population since 1990, almost all gone off as long-term migrant labor abroad. Most probably never to return. For many, the only possibility is exit, exodus. Sending money back to support their relatives. The predicted birth rate for 2013 will be the lowest in Bulgaria since 1945 [!], clearly a product of the massive exodus and unemployment among young adults (http://goo.gl/MQ3dKK). The country is literally contracting under the yoke of capitalism restored and its labyrinth of aporias.
Paradox 2: Children of the transition and their anomie
Many of the protesters are ‘children of the transition,’ aged 25 and younger. But it is extraordinary that they are not questioning the neoliberal system imposed from the EU that has led youth to such hopelessness, the restored capitalist system with all its inequities and inequalities that has created the chaos in Bulgaria since 1990. This is the tragedy of ‘depoliticized politics’: an entire deeply alienated generation burning with multiple frustrations but paradoxically inoculated against radical anti-capitalist politics of any stripe.
This is the product of the neoliberal nouveau capitalist Ideological State Apparatuses (Althusser) and their “machines of disimagination” (Giroux 2013: http://goo.gl/lkfME) that have been churning in Bulgaria 24/7 since the implosion and trampling of Realsozialismus in 1989/1990. In fact, alienation between the working masses and the State is perhaps at its highest level in Bulgaria since liberation from Ottoman rule (1396-1878).
Paradox 3: Elephant in the Bulgarian room
Bulgarians largely of a more ‘educated’ social stratum (esp. a demographic born 1980 and after) are out protesting against ‘oligarchy,’ an invisible ‘mafia,’ vast phenomena of corruption in nearly every sphere and the entire political elite in some sense since the fall of socialism―but not the elephant in the Bulgarian room: nouveau Capitalism redivivus installed on the rubblefields of socialism destroyed―the neoliberal state imported since 1990, its faux bourgeois democracy and brainwashing ideology, massive colonization by the structures of the EU, extreme and mounting inequality, destruction of Bulgarian industry and many spheres of agriculture, vast and deepening immiseration of much of the population (http://goo.gl/LCxnc http://goo.gl/HYYws). As DW journalist Alexander Andreev (http://goo.gl/vnU3pc ) recently observed:
“Since the breakdown of the communist system in 1989 and 1990, Bulgaria has been ruled by networks of oligarchies and clientilism. Practically all parties and coalitions in power serve the interests of large economic actors – or worse, those of shadow organizations which began as organized crime running protection rackets, but later established themselves as powerful market agents.” Yet the protestors have “formed no political party … Aside from a couple of generally formulated goals, they also have no understandable list of implementation measures – which would be required for the crisis-bound fields of education, healthcare, energy or the stagnating economy.”
The only flags visible in street protest are the Bulgarian national flag, as evident in the accompanying typical photo. Imagine a sustained protest over many weeks anywhere in Europe, the Near East, South Asia or Latin America against immiseration, mounting mass poverty, political corruption, casino capitalism, gross inequality―without a single red flag. Only in Bulgaria.
Paradox 4: Despite repeated denial, partisan politics fueling the protests
Foreign observers perhaps do not realize the extent to which Sofia is a veritable bastion of various tendencies in neoliberal nouveau capitalism politics, from its mayor on down. Of course Sofia is a complex of many social strata, with strong support for the center-left in some neighborhoods―and more than nostalgia for the former ‘real-socialist’ system and its achievements over many decades. But those Sofia-ites are largely over the age of 40, many are pensioners and most not participating in any current protests.
The Sofia mayor (GERB party) has been active in encouraging these demonstrations against the “socialist”-led coalition―demonstrations by a relative minority centered in Sofia and Plovdiv for immediate resignation of the current just installed government This is a call clearly rejected by a significant segment of Bulgarians of all walks, especially in the countryside and smaller urban centers, whatever their own disaffection from the current system, its gross inequities and dialectical contradictions.
So we should bear in mind the explicit partisan political dimension of a constant call by protestors, overwhelmingly based in metropolitan Sofia, for ‘resignation’ of the newly installed BSP-led government and immediate snap elections. It is coming largely (not totally) from the ranks of GERB supporters―and supporters of other small parties on the right and far right―which did not garner enough votes to enter the present parliament (barrier set by the electoral code at 4%). And from people (some 50% of the electorate) who didn’t bother to vote in May.
GERB supporters in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas (GERB’s major bastions of metropolitan support) are speculating for a ‘better showing’ for themselves in the next snap poll. That expectation is transparent from repeated commentary by the GERB leadership, including its leader (and former PM) Boyko Borisov in interview on Bulgarian National Radio July 25, reiterated in the parliament (goo.gl/2aIuHF). Borisov’s party, which had a slight lead in seats in the parliament, immediately refused to recognize the election results and filed a petition to the High Court to have them cancelled, which was later rejected by the judges. So GERB helped directly trigger public discontent with the May 12 snap poll in effect from day one after elections, later escalating into sustained protest against the BSP-led coalition. These protests, largely centered on Sofia, have been significantly different in character and scope from the nationwide protests in February against the Borisov government (which did resign after several years in office and mounting scandals) and the high cost of electricity and deepening poverty.
Paradox 5: Racist undercurrents and ethnic divisions
In a country with significantly large ethnic minorities (Turkish and Roma), elements of the protest for more ‘democracy’ are also openly anti-socialist and contra the ethnic Turkish party ДПС, with a definite racist anti-ethnic-minority undercurrent (very evident in protests in June 2013 in Plovdiv and Blagoevgrad against the newly appointed ethnic-Turkish regional governors). The hyper-nationalist thrust seems present everywhere. Despite the fact that the most radical right formation, ATAKA, is in the parliament and highly critical of the demonstrations. Where is Bulgrian multiculturalism in all this? Marginalized or openly trampled underfoot by the demonstrators.
This may help explain the virtual absence in the current Sofia and Plovdiv protests of the subaltern, most marginalized stratum—the Roma (ca. 10% of the population in BG)—likewise a striking dialectical paradox. The poorest of the poor, the most marginalized of the periphery, sit at home in their shanties and adobe huts, afraid to show their ‘ethnic’ faces on the defiant street— absent from protest as a sustained ethnic-majoritarian spectacle, even at times ‘nationalist anti-carnival’ in a certain Bakhtinian sense. The Roma know all this ‘public noise’ and chanting of ‘оставка, оставка!’ (‘resignation, resignation!’) is not about them, their misery, extreme levels of joblessness and plight of mass racist exclusion.
Paradox 6: Explicit anti-socialist bias and thrust
Where in Europe are shouts of “red garbage, red trash,” “communists,” aimed against supporters of the Bulgarian Socialist Party—a party now itself largely left-center and heavily neoliberalized—dominant and recurrent as slogans in mass street protest? Along with accusations that the current coalition is ‘pro-Moscow,’ and has been ‘bought off’ by Russian bribes [!]. This against a party closely connected with the social-democratic PES in Western Europe. The BSP has repeatedly claimed that the rightwing neoliberal GERB elite and its corporate backers in the large urban areas in Bulgaria are behind these protests, including the possibly orchestrated violence against parliamentarians in the night July 23/24.
I would differ with BSP on most of its positions—a transmogrified communist party, the old BCP, now strongly in support of NATO, EU colonization, Bulgaria’s corrupted version of nouveau capitalism and all its contradictions and inequities, and hardly ‘communist’ by a long shot—but BSP is the furthest left visible and active ‘progressive’ political formation in the country at this point. Nothing to its left, nishto, as one would say in Bulgarian. Its strength in the provinces and in certain more working-class smaller cities is part of the longer-standing social geography of Bulgarian politics. This divide―capital vs. country, metropole vs. province―needs empirical research for better understanding current urban insurgencies and their demographic ecologies everywhere. Interviewees on TV from the provinces critical of the demonstrators have recently stressed that “Sofia is not Bulgaria.”
Paradox 7: Calls for a new poll now? Cui bono?
As Alexander Andreev observed: “Should the government indeed step down, a second parliamentary vote this year wouldn’t change much, as demonstrators would have no time to organize themselves politically and practically.” Most political scientists in Bulgaria (except those allied with the neoliberal center-right) caution that nothing will change in the electoral arena chaos and its relative weightings for current party support until truly significant electoral changes are passed by a parliament. Preferably by this more ‘left’ parliament now at work. If the Bulgarian civil sphere is ‘awakening,’ as Popov (http://goo.gl/vEmbU) and others may contend, why are its eyes closed to this obvious reality? Unless the election code is significantly modified, including lowering the threshold for entry into parliament to three or even two percent (as in Israel), new parties will not benefit from a new snap poll. Twenty-five percent of votes in the May 2013 election were for parties (many quite new, formed after the February protests that were nationwide) that failed to reach the four percent barrier, clearly angering and alienating many who did vote. A similar situation could occur in a new immediate snap election demanded by many of the thousands in the Sofia streets.
Speaking of snap polls, a further mini-paradox that is an icon of the mood: voter alienation is so low that the snap election on 7 July 2013 for mayor in Varna, Bulgaria’s third largest city—held in the very midst of mass street protests against the national government—led to a voter turnout of barely 26% [!] in the two-party run-off poll, and a shaky ‘win’ by the GERB neoliberal candidate (http://goo.gl/QlLykD).
Commenting from a Marxist perspective on the protests, Anna Rombach of WSWS (http://goo.gl/yZdOD) notes:
“Apart from opposition to political corruption, the protests lack any clear perspective. The conservatives have tried to make use of them in order to return to power. Several right-wing organisations have pushed for influence. … Bulgarian workers and young people can find a way out of the social crisis only if they break from the influence of all of the bourgeois tendencies, from Ataka to Bulgarska Leviza. They must unite with the working class across Europe on the basis of a socialist perspective that opposes the European financial oligarchy and its institutions in Brussels.”
Useful radical reading for the radically disaffected?
Given the current levels of alienation from the existing system among ‘children of the transition’ and their two decades of neoliberal inoculation against ‘communist’ left politics by the machines of disimagination, perhaps quite a few Bulgarians could find that John Holloway’s ideas about Crack Capitalism (2010, full text here: http://goo.gl/oPVBu8 ) make good political and existential sense, and speak directly to their discontent. Holloway advocates multiplying the cracks and zones of resistance in the capitalist system of domination non-violently, through everyday acts of “self-determination,” creation of autonomous zones, the “anti-politics of dignity” and much more.
For the multitude of disaffected ordinary Bulgarians, many struggling to survive, Holloway might be a fresh new vision of working for radical change, in one’s daily life and in the country, building a genuine people’s movement for fundamental paradigm change “from the grassroots up” beyond the collapsing capitalism they currently face. Holloway looks to radical transformation along anti-authoritarian, anarchist-socialist lines, inspired especially by the Zapatista insurgency in Mexico, where he lives and works. But few in Bulgaria will have heard of the Zapatistas, and the crying need Holloway stresses—within the matrix of everyday life worlds—for “the creation, expansion and multiplication of cracks in capitalist domination” (p. 51).