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Bulgaria: Work of mass destruction

vzriv-gorni-lom-SmallSource: New Left Perspectives

On 1st of October the village of Gorni Lom in Northwestern Bulgaria was shaken by a huge explosion in a run-down arms disposal factory. This seems to be amongst the worst of a rising trend of industrial accidents in the country’s recent history. Fifteen people lost their lives in Gorni Lom. The blast was so intensive that nothing remains from the bodies of the victims, while there is only a huge crater left from what was once the premises of the factory. This factory is the only industry in the village, employing some 50 people. This blast was the sixth (!) to have occurred there in the past 12 years. According to Capital Weekly, in 2002 there were two blasts which tore down the trinitrotoluene workshop of the factory. In 2006 a fire broke out that killed Mr. Iliya Simov, one of the company engineers. In 2007 an explosion killed a 28-year old worker and hurt two others. In the same year another blast occurred, this time around without casualties. In 2010 a series of explosions there caused a fire. After the accident, 70 workers were sacked, forcing the 50 remaining workers to step up their efforts to dispose of an ever-increasing number of obsolete ammo and arms. This is aggravated by the piece-rate remuneration policy of the factory. As one worker explains, “If you scrap 1200 pieces, you will earn 17 euro cents per piece. If you can’t reach this level – you get only 13.5 cents.” This obviously worsens the risk of accidents since workers are racing under constant pressure to exceed the quota. Those 17 cents constitute only half of what the factory gets paid to dispose of the latest bunch of landmines that had arrived from Greece. The other half is pocketed by the owners.

It is painfully clear that lack of oversight and regulation exacerbates the tendency of capital to avoid shouldering the costs of safety and life-saving equipment, inherent in any capitalist industry. The factory’s dilapidated state before the tragedy furnishes us with by far the most poignant picture of the global war against labour: minimum investment (in safety, welfare, improvement) -> maximum impact (=profit). Within a legal-political framework of an austerity regime heavily tilted towards capital, capitalists are allowed to avoid absorbing the cost of reproducing the workforce; while labour emerges bereft of protection and burdened with the responsibility and costs for its own safety and reproduction.[1] Workers in that wretched factory, displaying their blister-ridden hands, narrate the hideous “make-do” work conditions: disposable gloves and facial masks become permanent “safety” gear with which they operate red-hot machinery (the mandatory cooling the machine with water is a luxury of a by-gone era) in a highly flammable environment. Even more obscenely, they are given old hammers with which to disarm land mines. According to one report, the blast was caused precisely by a mine that was being hammered to. Obsolete technology, deplorable work conditions, humiliating, irregularly paid salaries (ca. 120 EUR/monthly) and a ban on unionizing combine to produce a demonic mixture more lethal than the mines. When lack of safety doesn’t kill, near-starving wages do it. So do the constant redundancies which deliver the “bonus” of quieting a restless workforce that turns its disgruntlement with the management into a competitive struggle with each other to keep the job.

The mainstream interpretations of the incident immediately inscribed it into two dominant ideological fantasies. Firstly, the incident was mediated by the prevailing conspiratorial fantasy that “explains” why the desired 1989 dismantling of the socialist political economy did not produce the expected outcomes. This fantasy works by displacing the immanent features of any capitalist economy: i.e. that it generates misery on one pole and richness on the other, into an external plane: i.e. if it hadn’t been for an alleged outside force meddling with the system, it would have been okay.

Right after the explosion, the mass media circulated the news that the owner of the privatized arms factory is a freemason. Even the respectable liberal press did not resist the temptation to engage in a little bit of conspiracy fantasizing. The figure of the freemason in this particular case plays the role of simultaneously anchoring and sustaining belief in capitalism in the abstract, while allowing the believer to express criticism or outright denunciation of that particular instantiation of the labour-capital relation. Thus, while capitalism-as-such is not necessarily a bad thing, our particular “type” of capitalism is “inauthentic” and produces suffering and misery instead of the ever-anticipated and never-materializing justice. The entrepreneurs are presented as either ‘freemasons’, communist secret agents, reptilians, aliens or whatever, in a self-propelled inertia of displacement which generates the idea of an ever more occult force pulling the strings from behind the scenes. It is the popular version of the “qualified” capitalism approaches in political science which denounces a particular version of “corrupt” or “crony” capitalism from the perspective of a supposedly authentic, pure and good capitalism which is allegedly prevented from materializing due to external fetters.

The second discursive approach to the tragedy inscribed it into a narrative that became pronounced during the 2013 anti-governmental protests in Bulgaria against the then ruling coalition between the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Movement for Rights and Liberties (MRL, a party traditionally representing the sizable Turkish minority in Bulgaria). During the mass rallies, liberal activists asserted cynically that unlike the utilities protests in February 2013, now the “middle classes” march for “European values” against a shadowy “Eurasian” elite. The culmination of this logic was probably publication by a mainstream “liberal” activist, who published a class “analysis” claiming there is an alliance between the oligarchy and the „proletariat“. The “unproductive” oligarchy represented by the BSP-MRL coalition, he claimed, provides welfare, and the “proletariat“ – “controlled” (meaning unlawfully solicited or bought) votes.

Thus, in addition to the moral panic about the owner’s links to freemasonry, several newspapers emphasized that he is also close to the BSP and the ex-President of Bulgaria, also from BSP. Meanwhile, a journalist working for one of the major liberal newspapers made an investigation and found out that the village voted overwhelmingly for the MRL in the last EP elections. The choice of words betrays the journalist’s anticipated wonder (don’t the poor, after all, bear the responsibility for their own misery if they vote for the wrong parties?): “I decided to check how Gorni Lom residents voted last elections. What struck me is the following discrepancies: MRL got 39.34%, BSP got 19.25% while the Reform bloc [the coalition that claims to represent the self-styled “productive” middle class] got 1.26.” (emphasis added). The article concludes thoughtfully: “wherever there’s corporate vote [another term for “controlled vote”], there’s an interest working against people’s enriching themselves because if they are poor, they can be blackmailed to get bread.” This is how the liberal press exonerates “capitalism-as-such” against our supposedly corrupt and backward version which thrives not on freedom, but produces conditions reminiscent of serfdom for the workers that no liberal can afford to ignore. Yet these commentators feel compelled to explain away this inequity without throwing the capitalist baby together with the capitalist dirty water.

References to the so-called “controlled vote” abounded, with the sinister undertone that somehow the victims should be held responsible since they elect the worst parties to govern them. Another report on the work conditions concludes dramatically with the journalist recalling how some people from the village hoped he was there to buy their votes. The underlying assumption is that the “controlled vote” keeps the very parties in power responsible for the lack of authenticity of our capitalist economy. (The efforts of liberal activists to minimize the so-called “controlled vote” sometimes assume outright racist forms. For example, awareness-raising campaigns in slums – especially the Roma slums, the Roma being the usual suspect for nearly everything: the activists moralize their audience about selling one’s vote, completely overlooking the dire living conditions which could force people who resort to selling their vote if and when some do it in the first place, because even this is more often assumed than proved.)

What all this amounts to is blaming the victims for their own misery and ultimately death (“they should have unionized!” some exclaim compassionately amidst cold calculations how many of the villagers voted for the MRL as if there is a logical necessity indexing voting behavior to the gruesome violence visited upon workers!). The resilience of the ideas of responsibilization and self-help – the chief ingredients of the neoliberal ideological hogwash – is unshakable even in death.

Speaking of death, it is instructive how differentially the media dealt with the demise of the workers and the son of the factory owner who was also at the premises during the blast. Liberal humanists like to invoke the supposed universality of death, bodily degradation of old age, physical pain, etc in order to prove the “one-sidedness” of class analysis. The common wisdom of “we are all going to die” supposedly transcends the particularisms of the contingent and random class position one occupies during their lifetime. Over and beyond our material conditions of life, premised upon the unequal distribution of services, goods, income and life-chances, we are equally trapped in the inevitable degradation and end of our most intimate material embodiment. The everyday experience of capitalist inequality is cushioned with the ideology of trans-historical equality in death. In this logic class struggle occurs in vain because unbeknownst to ourselves, death has already reconciled us to one another. However, the media reports about the blast expose naked the limits of this naive liberal humanist wisdom. Thus, shortly after the explosion, the owner’s son was referred to by name and reports about his last vacation in Thailand were widely circulated. By contrast, three days after the blast, it was worryingly unclear whether the victims were 15 or 16 people.

The pseudo-brotherhood in death crumbles under the weight of the name of a single man.


jana tsonevaJana Tsoneva is a PhD student in Sociology at CEU, Budapest. Her research interests focus on the history of ideas, political economy and theory of ideology. Jana is a member of Social Center Xaspel, Sofia and of the New Left Perspectives collective. She also co-authors Hysterical Parrhesia (a Lacanian-Marxist blog).





madlenMadlen Nikolova is a Cultural Studies student. She is а founding member of social center Haspel (Sofia) and of New Left Perspectives collective. She also writes for Hysterical Parrhesia (a Lacanian-Marxist blog).

[1] The near-total abandonment on part of the state of its regulatory and infrastructure maintenance functions has produced many a tragedy: this summer alone, 15 people lost their lives in floods, and hundreds lost their homes and are still waiting in vain out in the cold for state compensation and assistance.

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