Imagine a country that once was considered the last stronghold of Stalinist socialism. A country that after the velvet revolution quickly became the apt pupil of the IMF, was one of the first to implement neoliberal reforms, and was also considered in the early nineties by none other than the IMF to be the ideal model of neoliberal capitalist restructuring. Imagine a country whose deindustrialization and mass privatization were shattering, whose unemployment reached its peak and was countered only by mass emigration to the West, especially to Greece and Italy. A country, a large part of whose working class currently fills the ranks of the Western under-proletariat, but nonetheless until recently has been able to send some money back home to create an informal and familial social security net. Imagine a country, whose emigrants are coming home, especially from Greece, mostly in economically destitute conditions.
Imagine this same country, whose first neoliberal restructuring in 1997 led to the worst Ponzi scheme financial break-down in which hundreds of thousands lost everything they had. Imagine a country whose neoliberal reforms were constantly being praised by the usual suspects, the likes of Forbes, despite the fact that more than 20% of its active population is constantly unemployed (referring only to the official statistics), whose youth unemployment is even higher, whose social services are close to nothing, whose public sector health care merely provides basic health recovery, for which one should pay informally, whose higher education system is under attack from a Chilean-model financial reform, whose working class is almost unorganized, in dire conditions, most of them working without any social security coverage, facing an old age without pensions. Imagine a country whose real minimal wage is approximately 110 Euros, and whose official minimal wage has been lowered, under the supervision of the IMF, from 153 to 125 Euros per month.
This neoliberal dystopian Neverland is Albania.
As if these socio-economical burdens were not enough, the Albanian central government and the Municipality of Tirana decided years ago that urban public transportation in Tirana was better off privatized, or, more specifically, awarded to concession to private companies, each of them covering one urban line monopolistically. This “natural” monopoly nonetheless gives governmental institutions the lawful right to decide on a single ticket price. When the urban public transportation was privatized the public authorities told everyone that there was no room for panic, since the ticket price would not be raised irrationally.
What has been going on in recent months is that the private companies have decided to push strongly for a raise of the ticket price from 0.2 Euros per trip to 0.5 Euros per trip. As they are widely perceived as informal clients of high-level politicians, everybody fears that they are acting in concordance with public authorities, and it’s expected that soon the ticket price will become at least 0.35 Euros per trip, so that the authorities can save their faces.
On the other hand the urban transportation service these companies are delivering is going from bad to worse. The average speed of a bus is 10-15 km/hour, because the owners need to raise their rate of profit by massing people. The overcrowding on these buses symbolically represents capital’s instrumental rationality: no empty spaces should be left inside the bus – ‘To each according to the minimal stretch of his limbs!’ This total exploitation of space shows a disregard for human life. While eggs in a cardboard carton are spaced out so as not to break, people on Tirana’s early morning buses hardly have enough room to breathe.
But how do these companies justify the request to raise the ticket price? They claim that their rate of profit has been lowered to a point that they don’t make any profit; some of them even claim that their costs are higher than the returns. How do they prove it? Just by saying it. As if by claiming that I am Miss Universe everybody should take my word for granted. Although citizens have demanded that the companies make their public accounts transparent to the wider public, the authorities have never responded to these requests.
Implicitly it can be assumed that the companies most probably suffer a lowering of the rate of profit, which, given the fact that they act in a monopoly situation without any kind of serious public scrutiny, is nonetheless still enormous. Till now the public authorities, both the central government’s Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, and the Municipality of Tirana (being led by the two contending mainstream parties), consider legitimate the requests by private companies to increase the ticket price. The key dispute currently is whether they should raise the ticket price or the private companies will be subsidized by the state for accepting the current price. Also, being close to the next municipal elections each of these parties (the third-way Socialist Party controls the central government, and the right-wing democrats control the Municipality of Tirana) hope that any unpopularity derived from these negotiations ends up being directed to their opponents.
The situation of urban transportation is symptomatic not only of the Albanian socio-political system, but also the ongoing neoliberal restructuring of capitalism world-wide. It has often been claimed that the welfare state and capitalism can work together – on the condition that this welfare state takes money from the poor to redistribute it to the rich. What is happening with urban transportation in Albania tends to confirm this.
As outlined above, it is likely that the private companies are “suffering” a lowering of the rate of profit, which even now still exceeds what others might consider the normal rate of profit in competitive capitalism. Not only does the government not investigate these claims, but it takes for granted that the companies’ rate of profit should be kept at high levels; as long as, ideologically speaking, this is good for the economy then we can expect the ‘trickling down’ to take effect later.
Instead of forcing the public will and interest on the (monopoly) private companies and preventing them from raising the ticket price, or abiding to the law making companies declare their bankruptcy, thereby offering the possibility that someone else, even the state itself, might take the responsibility of administrating the urban public transportation, the Albanian government has stuck to the side of the private companies. It promises to them to either accept their demand for the raising of the ticket price, or to subsidize with public money, strongly needed in other social services, the lowering of their rate of profit. The class bias of the state here is clear: if a worker is not able to pay his debts, nobody gives a damn, and will take away from him everything he still owns.
What about the workers in urban transportation? What are their conditions? What is their position with regard to the current antagonism between their employers and the wider public? First of all, being a driver or a ticket-collector in Tirana buses is one of the worst paid, no-right-at-all jobs one can have. The average wage tends to the (real) minimal wage. Almost all of them work illegally, without even private legal contracts, so that the owners can fire them at will, and with a soaring number of unemployed workers this is more than easy.
On the other hand, almost nobody takes the whole wage in the end of the month, because the owners impose an impossible rate of work; nobody escapes the harsh fines that are applied on drivers for not arriving at each bus stop on the exact minute, and no concessions are made for traffic which even poor Michael Schumacher would find impossible! Expectedly their working conditions go from bad to worse, with longer hours of work without rest and having to receive the bulk of the citizens’ wrath for the poor bus service – don’t forget the average donkey speed of the busses and the masses of people crammed inside them.
Without any hope of self-organization, these workers complain covertly for not getting their wages for months. Every one of them tells you in private that the owners have the resources to pay them, but are using this as a disciplinary whip against them, and as leverage in their negotiations with the government. Instead of autonomous organizations, these workers are represented by a puppet trade union created by the owners themselves and led by owners’ appointees. During these months without wages (now going on more than three), the puppet trade union has never raised its voice for workers’ basic rights. But it has organized two strikes (two-hour and one day strike) demanding that the government authorities raise the ticket price, so that the workers can get their wages. If anybody thought that having no union was the worst the workers can get, now he/she should change its cognitive map: having a puppet union which serves the owners can be even worse.
Instead of a broad coalition between the travelling poor (unemployed, workers, pensioners, students etc), which have no other alternative than public transportation, and the urban transportation workers against the owners, we have a situation in which the workers are forced to stand by their owners, losing any hope of solidarity between economically struggling people.
This raises the issue of the social and economic cost of common people using public transportation. For many even the current ticket price is unaffordable, taking in consideration that poor people live in the outskirts of Tirana and have to take more than one bus to come downtown, the only place to hope for a job. The same goes for students whose university tariffs and living costs increase year by year, and are expected to soar as a result of the planned university financial reform. Raising further the ticket price would mean a quasi-total social segregation of the poor.
The situation of the poor jobless, precarious or minimal-wage worker in Albania today even comes to resemble a society of racial segregation. Given the social and historical construction of identities, it is not difficult to imagine a world in the near future in which the poor are perceived not just as a different ‘class’ but as a different ‘race’. This frightening possibility has inspired many of us in the movement to defend public transport to draw lessons from the anti-racist struggle against the segregation of buses in the US South. Taking inspiration from figures such as Rosa Parks, who famously refused to move from her seat, the movement here in Tirana has decided that if the ticket prices are raised we will call on the poor to refuse to pay the fare and to walk together to work in protest.
This opens the ground to a more general insight on the logic of contemporary capitalism. In its historical heydays capitalism managed to survive, especially through its crisis, by serving its own immanent logic rather than the interests of particular capitalists. Capitalism is a mode of production that can be reproduced, economically, politically and ideologically only as long as it is not bound by the interests of its particular agents. For some Marxist theorists, the capitalist state requires a relative autonomy from the interests of single classes in order to temporarily overcome its structural limits or develop the necessary infrastructure for the flow of capital and the movement of the working class. The same goes for its historical ideological apparatuses, like the church, or its “independent” intellectuals.
Nowadays capitalism cannot afford this. Let’s take again the example of the urban transportation in Albania. The owners of the transportation companies are eager to raise the ticket price. Naturally this goes against the rights and interests of the vast majority of the working people. But, within the capitalist system, who has ever cared much about this concern? But let’s consider this issue from another angle, from that of other capitalists, at least of those who invest in productive sectors. If the ticket price is doubled as the private bus’ companies hope, a lot of people won’t even be able to go to work, if they are lucky enough to have it. Of course, temporarily this can be dealt with by using the large pool of the unemployed, but even these people will need to live nearby in order to walk to their work place.
In addition, those who could still afford to use urban transportation would have less and less money aside to spend on other commodities, because their real wage would be lowered. Hence the inherent contradictions multiply, not only between capitalists and labor forces, but also within the capitalist ruling class itself. And a state that has lost all its relative power towards particular capitalists’ claims, serves some of them by putting others in difficult conditions.
Naturally this deadlock is not problematic in itself, as long as capitalism in its neoliberal form is chopping away at the branch upon which it is sitting there are important opportunities for building opposition. But the deepening of the crisis doesn’t lead spontaneously to a revolutionary situation. Worst still, it can lead to the strong emergence of neo-fascist political groups and ideologies, at least there where the working people, the unemployed, the precariat, the students, the poor more generally, are not organized, as in Albania.
The situation in Albania is not thoroughly hopeless. It takes a lot of patience and even daydreaming to find hope, but the weakness of the ruling classes and the state can be spotted. What has happened during these months in Tirana is the mobilization of young people, especially students, not only to counteract the raising of the ticket prices, but also to organize and mobilize working people. Organizata Politike, a radical leftist group to which I belong, composed mostly of students, young workers and intellectuals, has managed to organize demonstrations and assemblies against the prospect of the raising ticket price, and more generally about the necessity of the commons.
We’ve occupied a symbolic space in the center of Tirana, called the square of the Unknown Partisan (in honor of the fallen antifascist partisans of Second World War), a square which functions as a gathering place for the precariat and the unemployed, people who day by day hope that somebody picks them up for some hours of work. By discussing and sharing their dire socio-economical conditions, workers and students, probably for the first time in decades, although in small number, are building common confidence and solidarity. As the traditional working class, or what is left from it, is segregated behind the high walls of factories, trembling for fear of losing their “privilege” of still having a job, the precariat and students (tomorrow’s educated precariat) see the need of cooperation and common struggles.
In a country so politically depressed that only mainstream parties manage to gather thousands of people, and the NGO-s conduct their aesthetic protests by organizing solitary and symbolic gestures, the coming together of one hundred precarious workers and students is a small needed step in the direction of building a strong movement. At least this is our Blochian daydream in the abyss of the Albanian dystopian Neverland.