Abstention from the Bulgarian protests: Indebted workers and declining market teleology

Source FocaalBlog

by Dimitra Kofti

“The glass will overflow”


Written at the entrance of a factory shop floor in Pernik, an industrial Bulgarian town close to the capital, this slogan predicted an uprising. According to workers’ testimonies, the slogan had been written before the February 2013 Bulgarian protests. Nevertheless, the glass did not overflow in the plant during 2013, as it did not overflow in the early 2000s, when the privatization process brought mass layoffs and pay cuts. Since 2013, in different parts of the country, workers went on strike because they were long-term unpaid. However, workers in Sofia and Pernik, who were low-paid but regularly, and with whom I conducted fieldwork in different periods since 20071, did not participate in the urban protests in February 2013 and July 2014 that contributed to the fall of two successive governments and happened during a period of economic destabilization, with the near collapse of a bank. In this presentation, I explore reasons and mechanisms of workers’ nonparticipation of the ongoing Bulgarian protests. There is a methodological trap here: an ethnography that searches for the lack of an action already presupposes that the ethnographer would anticipate an action. Nevertheless, Bulgarian workers also comment on the lack of their political participation and give various reasons for this. I take their concerns seriously, and I am attempting to think with them and through their daily talks as well as through their practices at work and at home.

Protests against austerity in February 2013 were massive for Bulgarian standards; they took place all over the country and were accelerators of governmental change a few weeks after they began. Moreover, a new phenomenon in the country, that of self-immolation as a form of protest, marked the new period. There were at least seven cases of self-immolation during and shortly after the winter 2013 protests. Some of them clearly stated their protesting character, choosing public spaces, such as in front of the town’s municipality. These individual acts of hopelessness may also be seen as strong statements that participation to collective action is not seen as an effective possibility—although these acts seemed also as strong attempts to generate collective change. Nevertheless, this topic requires research that goes beyond the limits of this study.

After the election of the new government in May 2013, a new wave of summer protests took place, this time only in Sofia. These were numerous at the beginning, but their numbers dwindled radically over time, and they continued for months on a daily basis. Sometimes, even a few hundred protesters in front of the Bulgarian parliament were enough to appear in the headlines and in daily talks among people, and, although not mass gatherings, they generated mass discussions about political processes and participation.

My eight-month fieldwork in Bulgaria from September 2013 to May 2014 focused on industrial workers’ lives and families during a period that the second wave of protests was fading out. I hardly met any people who participated in the recent protests but many who talked about them on a daily basis. Moreover, workers in both Sofia and Pernik not only did not participate in the recent political events but also often expressed disappointment for their outcome, as well as a general mistrust to any kind of political participation and to the “protesters.” Although I arrived in the field with an expectation that workers would be more engaged with political activism, and perhaps more active in syndicalism, compared to my fieldwork period from 2007 to 2009, very soon I found out that workers viewed these processes as remote from their lives. Although there are insightful publications about the character of the protests, the profile of the protesters and their demands (e.g., Ivancheva 2013; Medarov 2014; Smilov and Vaisova 2014; Tsoneva 2013), there has been little attention on the vast majority of those who did not participate in the protests.

Brief overview of the Bulgarian protests and their media representations
The recent Bulgarian protests may be seen through two rough periods: the first in February 2013 was against austerity and high energy prices. It also included demands for nationalization of the energy sector. The dominant slogans, which were for better living standards, very soon changed into more general ones against “politics” and “the politicians.” The center-right prime minister resigned in a few days, and the new elected government was a coalition of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (a successor of the Communist Party, which is a center-left, pro-market economy party), the right-wing nationalist party ATAKA, and the party of the Turkish minority (DPS)—a quite contradictory combination that did not last long. The prime minister resigned in July 2014, after fifteen months in power. The second wave of protests had “Resign!” as its most prominent slogan, and it began after a media mogul was appointed as the head of state security by the new government. This wave of protests was characterized by a strong anticommunist rhetoric, as the Bulgarian Socialist Party is viewed as “communist” by a wide part of the population. As I have argued in my doctoral thesis (Kofti 2013), the term “communist” has come to mean almost anyone who holds power, in postsocialist Bulgaria, and it is associated with alleged practices of corruption. According to life stories I have collected, one may find people in key positions who had connections with previous forms of power from the communist past. Nevertheless, this was not always the case. The “communists,” or “red trash,” became a metonym for people currently in power, who actually took decisions related to privatization, liberalization of the market, and the demolition of the welfare state over the course of the past twenty-four years. Detached from an actual history of communist party membership, the generalization of the term contributes to the general negation of “politics” and “the politicians.”

In terms of economic demands, the protests in both periods were not always clear or unified. However, there were strong voices throughout the two periods for a more transparent market, a “real capitalism” versus a “wild capitalism,” less “corruption,” and less state intervention. There were also strong voices against foreign investments in the country, which mostly drew from popular nationalist discourses in similar ways that Kalb and Halmai’s (2012) volume demonstrates in different countries in Eastern Europe. Moreover, during the past year, two important events related to people’s mobility further raised nationalism and ethnic conflict: on the one hand, thousands of Syrian refugees who arrived in the country were not welcomed by a large amount of people who saw them as an economic and even moral threat. On the other, discussions about whether migration from Bulgaria and Romania would be allowed in the United Kingdom resulted in growing hostility against the Roma in Bulgaria, as they were largely viewed as responsible for Bulgarians’ “negative” image in the United Kingdom and in “Europe.”

Bulgarian and international media often represented the February protesters as part of the “working class” and the summer protesters as the “middle class.” To a great extent, summer protesters were indeed self-presented as “middle class.” Nevertheless, various authors have underlined how the class synthesis of the protesters was far more unclear and that many of the protesters were people with higher education degrees working at precarious and often underpaid white-collar positions in various companies (Nikolova 2014).

It is in this general context of ongoing political processes that I position the ethnography that follows: an ethnography based on the daily lives of industrial workers, some kilometers away from the center of the protests in Sofia, where one may not find quick rhythms of change in similar ways with the wider political picture but rather a monotonous rhythm of production.

Flexibilization of labor and debt on the shop floor
In winter 2014, another word was added under the slogan:

“The glass will overflow. Soon.

Some further explanation in wall slogans written in other parts of the shop floor: “Pay cuts for the workers, further bonuses for the managers.” Workers in Pernik have similar experiences to most workers in Bulgaria; they have gone through impoverishment since the early 1990s, and they have lived through successive crises since the late 1980s. The privatization projects resulted in mass layoffs, rise in unemployment, and deregulation and flexibilization of labor—processes similar to many industrial areas elsewhere (e.g., Dunn 2004; Mollona 2009). These conditions affected Bulgarian workers’ lives, families, and household strategies in several ways. Here, I will name the three most important sets of changes in Bulgarian workers’ lives, which I view as symptoms of what Streeck describes as the broader economic downward trends of current capitalism—in economic growth, social equality, and financial stability (Streeck 2014: 47):

First, the lack of social welfare was replaced by “kinfare” (Deneva 2012). Many workers have to support unemployed or underemployed family members as well as pensioners under low-pension schemes. As a result, there are strong relationships of interdependency inside households and extended families, in addition to practices of solidarity among kin and friends. Second, daily work life became significantly harder, as tasks were now fulfilled by significantly fewer people, even in cases where there was no significant machinery renovation. Workers in several companies now had to not only work harder but also take more risks at work: some positions that had been filled, for example, by four people, were now occupied by one worker and required more concentration during the whole shift. As such, people had a high probability of accidents and other health problems, even in cases where the machinery has been modernized. Finally, harder working conditions were not necessarily followed by better payment. Rather, they were accompanied with economic hardship. Many households got loans to cope with daily needs or housing projects. Moreover, while market prices rise, salaries remain low, especially after 2008, as a result of the financial crisis. Workers who mostly got loans before 2008 estimated initially that they would pay the loans back, according to their previous salaries and market prices. At a survey I conducted, the great majority of workers above the age of thirty are indebted to a bank. Loan-free exceptions were mostly young people who did not have children and casual (mostly Roma) workers whose income did not allow them to get a bank loan.

Most of the workers linked the lack of their political participation with economic hardship and instability and said that they did not strike or protest mainly because they were indebted to banks. As many mentioned, they were afraid of losing their job because of political activism or unionism. Similarly, the great majority are not members of unions, which are largely seen as “corrupted,” similarly to political parties. As Gavin Smith and Susana Narotsky (2006) have argued, there is a link between political oppression and lack of political response. Similar to workers in Spain (ibid), Bulgarian workers experience growing political alienation, which is strongly connected to their dispossession, as well as to the painful effects of financialization of capitalism in their lives. They have to deal with risk on several levels: health risk at work in addition to job market and credit risk. The price of their very same repetitive labor, which some of them did for as many as thirty years, might change for reasons irrelevant to their actual labor. The prices of loans also changed, compared to the salaries, and may unpredictably change again. As Guyer (2009) has argued, it is the monetization of life and the price component that make risk a kind of new “fictitious commodity” (Polanyi [1944] 2001). Although Bulgarian protests, especially the ones in February 2013, were about the unbearable market prices, workers did not protest, because, as they said, they had to cope with difficulties in their daily lives, including the unbearable prices. Nevertheless, this did not fully answer my question, given that, although they did not unionize, they could still protest along with other protesters at the urban centers without risking their jobs. Additionally, many workers have more than one job, in order to cope with low salaries and debt. Therefore, it was also a matter of time management, as many reasoned. However, the nonparticipation of political mobilizations was further complicated by a language of corruption, as well as a combination of an anticommunism and ideas for a return to the stability of the national economy.

Anticorruption, anticommunism, and a return to the national economy
According to most of the workers, the protests were thought to be driven by political parties and were part of the same problem they were addressing, that is, “corrupted politics.” There was a widespread opinion that the February 2013 protesters were actually “paid” by the party in opposition, as the summer ones were believed to be “paid” by the party that just resigned from the government. There were also rumors about specific tariffs one would get for a day of protest. Everyone had heard about the amount of the tariff but none of the people I spoke with actually knew someone involved in such a transaction. This belief of paid protests significantly discouraged people from participation, although they themselves would often express ideas similar to those of the protesters.

For example, Ivo, a fifty-two-year-old worker, supported the demands of the protesters, as he was “against corruption” but did not support “the protesters” because they were “just paid” and “just playing the game of the political parties.” He viewed them in a similar way that he viewed the labor unions, from which he ceased his membership in the late 1990s, because he reasoned that they were “only bribed” and “did not actually support the workers’ rights.” Similar ideas of union leaders being “corrupted” and in strong cooperation with political parties and business owners were common among workers. As such, both unions and political parties were viewed as inefficient modes of political representation. Ivo used to be a miner in Pernik but was laid off after privatization and is now working in construction to cope with his family expenses and to repay his loan, which he got before he lost his job. Although he accused the “communists,” he also talked about how things were better “before,” when his production unit was state-owned both during the communist times and throughout the 1990s. Those two aspects of his narration were not contradictory in his view:

We used to have a house (the Bulgarian state), which had bad quality windows. Instead of changing the windows, those communists demolished the whole construction. And they gave all assets to foreigners to rebuild the house. The Bulgarian nation is only losing from this.

Ivo mentioned various benefits he had had as a worker during the previous era and stated that he supported the right wing that stands for a strong national economy. “Communists,” in these kind of common everyday political discourses among workers, did not get credit for building the previous national economy, but they were to be blamed for the demolition of it or for errors in constructing it.

The end of modern teleologies? An ideological void?
I have attempted to briefly present how anticommunist ideology is combined with anticorruption ideas, along with ideas for a return to past national economy and how these are interconnected to workers’ experience of dispossession in the context of financialization of the economy and the demise of the welfare state. Workers would often say that they did not protest because they did not think there would be “any actual change,” both in the wider politico-economic context and in their lives; they could still have to repay unbearable bank loans while they would worry for their potential job loss. They would also say that for similar reasons, they chose not to vote. The nearly 50 percent abstention from the last country elections in October 2014, is a strong indicator of this phenomenon. People like Ivo have experienced the fall of two modern teleologies: in the early 1990s, he thought that with “this market economy, things would get better.” Nevertheless, after twenty-four years, things did not get “any better,” as he would say. Besides people’s time scarcity and suspicions of corruption, it seems that an important reason for not participating is a general lack of trust to collective activism and a more general lack of an alternative ideology for the future, which seems to be connected to the ongoing experience of economic decline in workers’ lives. Although the Bulgarian protests have shown that activism may be catalytic for some political changes, it seems that there is lack of envision for a better future and the sense of inability to react to the demands of the global economy and to the alleged “corruption” that keeps many people away from active political participation. Bulgarian workers’ mistrust of political mobilization and political representation reveals their criticism that the market is ruling politics in similar ways that is ruling their lives. Some of the workers would say, “Once it was the Party; now it’s the market that dictates.” Streeck (2014) has recently suggested to “learn to think about capitalism coming to an end without assuming responsibility for answering the question of what one proposes to put in its place” (48). Bulgarian workers, who often describe politics with irony and have already seen the end of another economic system, repeated the following joke, to demonstrate how there is currently a sense of decline, similar to this in the end of the communist times:

Chicago -20, feels like -40.
Sofia 2013, feels like 1989.

1. This presentation is based on fieldwork conducted in 2013 and 2014 at the industrial town Pernik, Bulgaria. This project is part of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology team project on “Industry and Inequality in Eurasia.” It also draws material from my doctoral research in Sofia from 2007 to 2009. All names of people and companies in this text are pseudonyms in order to protect their anonymity.

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