On November 12, 2013 a picture of a 15 year old girl, crying and agonizing in front of a Bulgarian police officer, was carried by social media and hit the international info exchange. She quickly became the poster girl of attempts to topple the BSP-led “left” government. It was a moving image of teenage anger, landmarking the efforts then underway to mobilize high school and university students alike, spearheaded by the Sofia University occupation.
The virality of the image combined with the compassionate virility of thepoliceman comforting her, reportedly saying “Hold on. Everything is gonna be fine”. It was a cross-gendered concoction of transgressions. A teenage girl, growing up as a protesting citizen, at the edge of childhood, crying out her tears in the bleakness of the present; and a full-blown ideological transgression of a male policeman promising her the future, while working for the very same government that made her cry over the present – and protest against it. In turn, the girl said, his eyes were teared too.
This imagery is symptomatic of the collective moral espionage exercised in the Bulgarian protests. The discourse heldwas the one of a moral majority-turned-minority which has to retake the floor of power. What could better trigger a moral collectivization than a crying girl, nearly a child, but not quite, nearly a citizen, but not yet? In the ensuing and preceding social debates on the participation of children in protests, two narratives – the pro narrative which had to teach us all that citizens are being created in situ, in their own enlivening of the polis, and the contra narrative which insisted on the lack of moral autonomy of the child, to be protected by his/her grown-ups’ politics – collided in one single point: both the creation and the protection of a child-citizen were somebody else’s rationale for a conservative agenda. The agenda was always the one of covert nationalism: be it the liberal-rightist alarmism of educating or the somewhat leftist moralism of protecting the child for collective ends, little did anyone opine that the latter is the very material for all and any nationalism. That the very future is nationalistic if mediated by the figure of the child. That to procreate and have children creates a boundary between people and a hierarchy of deserving a future or not. That the logic of creation or preservation serves the same end of securing both a future and its population malleable to just two versions of society which never include the lives of th
ose already expendable or simply not procreating. The abject identities engineered by many protest-goers proved that. No wonder that the promised land of futurity is dominant also in the LGBT movement, allegedly widely represented in the protests originating in the ecological ones of summer 2012.
Discernible as it was, the protests’ demographic is by now largely contested. While the 2012/2013 winter protests’ imagery featured retired people and those pauperized to the brink of existence, the ensuing summer 2013 protests, along with the Sofia University occupation, carried youthful pictures of those who have a steady hold on the future. (It is true that some social mobility among the protest waves was there, but little did the younger generations invested in it, proselitizing on to their social status, class, age, as their bona fide). The pact between youthfulness and capitalist longevity was further sealed by having the liberal university elites allied with the summer protests, leaving the earlier ones to the retrograde, unreconstructed (or hereditary) left-wing intellectuals. The fact that left-wing Bulgarian media lean on the older social strata, while the center-to-right ones target middle-class/younger professionals (rendering the former grand-parents, and the latter actual or to-be parents), further weakened the cause ofinter-class/inter-age mobilization within theprotest waves. As a result we ended up with a rather juvenile sensation of social anger ascribed to the summer protests. A certain sociable selfhood was rendered good and profitable for the protests’ sake. By now it is an uncontested cliche that the ire of the “young, educated and beautiful” (a media trope against which many thus labeled rightfully protest) was a summer affair, while the affair of those “with no teeth” is deeply shoved under the snow of winter 2012/2013. It is against this sad polarization that we need an account of just what pre-requisites the child imagery brought to the political arena.
Against the national stereotype of negativist folk psychology, the divergent strains of protestfound their symbolic capital in the flesh of children. For many this was a fresh political air. Amid the winter whirlwind of desperation and self-immolations, now it was the insidious specter of the child that abetted multifarious demands and messages for the change of the Political and the System. Since the cry of the day was “we are not leaving [Bulgaria], you are [Oresharski’s government]”, the child and the logic of procreation was the argumentative scaffold on which protest flowered. People massively brought their children as the symbolic-but-enfleshed way to reclaim the res publica, what is literally of the people. It was the highest and noblest of amalgamations between the present and the future. Child protest for the future turned into the capitalist molestation of the present. This created a model of procreative protest.
Numerous efforts were made by liberal media pundits to whitewash the summer protests of their conservative features and promote an image of full-blown EU citizenry repeatedly sabotaged in their civic-mindedness by conservative pro-Russian homophobic Putinoids of the BSP. (In turn, the “Sorosoids” were created.) Some went so far as to label all those questioning, among other things, the protests’ civic morality focus as left-wing fascism. But what united all protest waves was their inherent sexism and homophobic bile, the target of which was also women and/or LGBTs.
The challenge of merging cultural and economic exclusions was held briefly in both protests waves and lost forever. What dominated was the promised futurity enfleshed in what I call here child protestation: the child as the political vessel of good tax-paying citizens’ demands. The image of the 15 year old girl struck a chord in the fantasmatic future of the nation that is promised by default: children don’t cry and don’t protest, or at least don’t do both at the same time. Doing both was too much. After all, if children are not happy and smiley, what’s left of the future?
But what future is there for those not conforming to the logic of what Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurism”, namely, securing “the survival of the social in the Imaginary form of the Child”? Can we include here both cultural rights claims and poverty-stricken masses? Can we even imagine (not to mention reproduce) the protest of numerous abject identities that were repeatedly mocked by the protests’ moral majority? Are we all going to be extortedby the tyranny of the child, by a baby-faced neoliberalism?Procreation legitimizes and promotes a moralistic and “higher” form of protest, while rendering certain selves as either unimaginable or expendable in the protest arena.
As Edelman has thaught us, all affirmative politics is conservative. The Bulgarian protests were an attempt to prove this, and truly brought fresh insights into reclaiming the Political.But any discourse on changing social reality via the image of the child is inherently conservativeand could not rescue the alleged EU-centered progressivism: the very notion of the good citizen is already impregnated with his or her (future) children. This conjugal death grip on the citizen already implies heterosexism; this is why there is no principled contradiction in being both politicaly progressive and regressive at the same time. Pro-family LGBT activists worsen the case in Bulgaria, too. Already the late Hegel made the family the support of the state, but also of civic duty and dignity. Failure to procreate is a failure in civic duty, divesting you of social dignity. This is why anyone not comforming to the nuclear family is abject andis immediately jettisoned from political (heterosexual) normativity.
This is liberal nationalism pure and simple. I doubt that any Bulgarian self-identified liberal protest-goer will decline the label of “Enlightened patriotism”, if not nationalism, when pressed with the charge of reproductive futurism. What reproductive futurism makes manifest in this case is the heterosexual and heterosexist pride of the nation, mirroring exactly the logic of gay pride. Thus reproductive futurism as identified in social protests already includes LGBT and even feminist actors trying to desperately infiltrate the protests and to “queer” them.
Both appropriations of children in politics (impicit/explicit) are moralistic. We should construct a narrative against reproductive futurism, one that is sociable for all walks of life, by including a realistic notion of the social death we face daily, caused by neoliberal domination in the Balkans. The alternative is to condone and glorify social defeatism and accuse everybody else in a baby-face fascism. It is true that “[t]he sacralization of the Child … necessitates the sacrifice of the queer” (Edelman): Bulgarian protest waves proved this in that they were both sexist and homophobic. The challenge is not to protest the child as a civic featurette in a corner of the world which laments its own geopolitical erasure and demographic apocalypticism.We have to challenge the very logic of the preservation of society: to protest against and beyond the procreative logic which leaves behind the toothless pensioneers of winter 2012/13, who will never see a dentist until their social death transforms into a real one.
To question the political use of procreation as the support of legitimate neoliberal protest means to learn to defend our living dead. To see how we all are the living dead of neoliberal capitalism, no matter gay or straight, procreative or not. (No class collaboration, however, can be centered around an extortionist child narrative, the projectile of which we all are supposed to become.) It means to pro-create and re-create the lives of those not worth living under capitalism; not by buying into the liberal pro-LGBT rhetoric granting joyous images of same-sex coupledom and conjugality, but by supporting the political rationality of the (un)dead citizens we have become. For we are facing social death on an everyday basis – and the confiscation of the future by the all-inclusive tolerant liberal mindset will bring even more social death. Why?
Because we are living the present of the childless and the teethless. Neoliberalism is itself a system against its – and ours – own existence, as Radhika Desay has argued. This theory has just been data-backed by economist Thomas Piketty. Neoliberalism is a form of rule that cannot secure its own survival, but we buy its ideology of survivalism (whence the desperate strategy of reproductive futurism). This is why the child investment in such protests is such a staggering and dangerous rhetorical exorcise: if the 2013 Bulgarian protests can be labeled pro-neoliberal, then they were demanding more of the very same system that cannot sustain parental security, let alone children’s. Under austerity and neoliberalism you don’t need teeth or childrent, just as you don’t need to procreate, in order to protest. The promised sense of futurity which liberal elites and protesters aspire to is in fact against the security of the future itself, and thus children. Seeing the present brightly is only possible by seeing the childless – if not humanless – future of neoliberalism, which has already promised us the end of the future.