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Real Power Directly to the People

The events in Bulgaria are moving so fast that it seems that whatever commentators will say will be rendered immediately as non-contemporaneous to them: either too soon or too late. Such instability is driven by the behaviour of the main actors themselves: one day the prime minister is certain he won’t resign (so as not to let the socialists and the Turks take power, he explained), the next day he deposits the resignation of the entire cabinet in Parliament, the official reason being that he cannot stand to watch an enclosed parliament while his “brothers” – the police – beat up citizens trying to reach the building. However, the resignation seemed to be partial: the finance minister Dyankov, who had resigned a few days before, surprisingly announced that he is withholding his resignation and will continue to serve as finance minister in order to guarantee Bulgaria’s fiscal stability and supervise the country’s latest bond issue on international markets. In a gesture that seemed like nothing less than a declaration for the establishment of an autonomous ministry of finance, Dyankov disregarded the fact that the Prime minister Borisov had filed the resignation of his entire cabinet and resumed his job as a minister.

Tectonic changes rock the world of the grassroots protests as well: what started as a protest against the high utility bills metamorphosed into a protest against the “political system of the entire post-1989 transition”. Meanwhile the utility bills protest redoubled: there are mass mobilizations every day. The original anti-price hikes protest happens every Sunday and its organizers repeatedly insist that anything that happens in-between Sundays is not part of their efforts. Thus, while the Sunday demonstrations have a more or less clear structure (i.e. fixed location and duration, though not always), clearly identifiable leaders (they normally address the crowd mounted on top of a small van), and slogans, the mobilizations between Sundays bear the insignia of spontaneous eruptions of anger, are dominated by neo-nazi hooligans, lack any reference to the utility bills problem and their slogans typically consist of chants one hears at stadiums: “Bulgari-junaci” (“Bulgarians [are] heroes,” a slogan from the highly successful participation of Bulgaria in the 1994 World Cup), “ushev-pederas’” (roughly translated as “the police are faggots”), “Ostavka!” (meaning “resign!”) or simple booing. Also, in contrast to the largely peaceful Sunday mobilizations, the nazi protests are violent with young men deliberately seeking (and succeeding) to provoke riots and police reprisal[i].

Amid this difficult to predict, open-ended turbulence certain things do remain stable. Thus, even though the (Sunday) protests against the privatized distributors/managers of the power grid morphed into a protest against the political parties, both faces of the protest obey the same underlying logic: that of absolute resistance to (symbolic) mediation both in the political and the economic spheres. This stable logic that forecloses mediation is conducive to the change in demands and orientation of the protest. Now I will address the issue of the language these demands are articulated in.

The language of the protests

This section will focus largely on the Sunday protest since in the case of the nazis language often breaks down and their riots are dominated by pure physical violence and chaotic wandering up and down the streets on a route spontaneously decided on the spot. However, their poor sloganeering should not blind us to their importance. The nazi riots supply the raw force behind the more articulated (ex)utility bills protests. Further, the nazis’ repeated outbursts of violence lent extreme urgency to the protests and provided the immediate reason forcing the government to step down. (In a sense, this worked against the utility bills protests since initially they did not want government resignation but its opposite: a strong government that can nationalize the energy sector and reign in the market forces. A government in disarray can do neither of that.)

The discourse of the protesters combines elements of the two hegemonic post-1989 symbolic registers: the liberal and the national. They utilize all liberal cliches which dominate the public sphere since the end of Socialism: civil society, efficient markets free of monopolies, transparency, neutral expertise, Euro-integration, and so on. However, we can clearly see struggles for signification waged within the frames of these liberal signifiers. Thus, in their discourse, the word “monopoly” starts to signify precisely the situation after the opening up of the national energy market for foreign investors. Thus, the people often say “we are against the monopolies, and we want free consumer choice! When will the market be liberalized so I can plug my home directly into the nuclear power plant in order to buy cheap Bulgarian electricity?”

There are two important moments here: firstly, we have foreclosure of the mediation role of the energy distribution grid: people want direct, unmediated access to the Real of the Bulgarian nuclear energy. Secondly, while the liberal frame of their speech is left intact, its meaning is derailed to make space for the expression of a longing for the national (especially in the instances where protesters say “we are against the monopolies, we are for nationalization”, that is, an illiberal demand expressed in liberal-speak calling for a national monopoly over the energy sector). In their discourse, the nuclear power plant reactors morph into the warmth-emitting heart of the nation while the mediators between the producer and the end user are cast as external, undesired parasites which steal our enjoyment by triangulating the mOther-child-like unity between producer and consumer. In short, what emerges is the contours of a clearly identifiable Oedipal-productivist ideology pitted against all sorts of (paternal) mediators: traders, retailers, bankers, political parties, etc.

The second register that is deployed at the protests is that of the national. Even though the national is often present as the “substance” of the liberal-speak outlined above, the protesters do not shy away from direct references to the national via mobilization of images of national-liberation heroes, etc. Yet, this does not make the protests nationalist per se. They do not entertain the (progressive) nationalism of the 19th century state-building process which run parallel to, and had materialized in the institutions of the modern state. In contrast, they want to annihilate those institutions (especially the parliament, see below). Neither do they entertain the nationalism of the post-1989 period, marked by xenophobic ressentiment and the vitriol of anti-communism/anti-semitism (often used interchangeably in most conspiracy theories that try to patch up a narrative of why the transition made us so miserable). For example, in one of the recent protests, a member of the extreme-right Ataka party tried to join the protest and address the crowd but he was almost beaten up by the people. (This happened several times to members of other parties who attempted to join the protests in their capacity as “citizens” and were brutally rejected.) The enemies now are not the communists, the Turks, the Roma or the Jews, it is the “party system” in all of its permutations. Even the nationalist parties are rejected even though they speak the same (or similar) language as the protests (apart from the incident with the Ataka party member, a police cordon was needed to separate Ataka party’s 20th Feb rally and the nazis nearby in front of parliament). Thus, as one of the few publicly available and legitimate registers, the language of the national serves as a vehicle for expressing discontent. As such, it provides the means albeit not the ends of the protest.

What separates radically these protests from the last comparable instance of mass mobilizations during 1997 when the protesters stormed parliament, is the complete lack of any political party that would give the protest form and direction. In a desperate attempt to repeat the success of 1997 which brought it to power, the (largely marginal and forgotten) center right party UDF (Union of democratic forces) is now regrouping and hoping to provide a legitimate alternative to the status quo. Their chances are nil. People do not want elections and parties but complete fusion between civil society, the nation and the (metaphysical) state. Some of the demands comprise: at least 50% participation of citizens on all levels of power and administration of the state; a new constitution written by the citizens themselves, majoritarian vote, as well as the development of a mechanism with which a MP can be summoned back by the people as soon as it is established that he or she has betrayed the national interest. Yesterday, on the regular blockade of a major central intersection in Sofia, the protesters said that they are “against the parties and elections as such.”[ii]

Thus we can safely conclude that even though the protest redoubled, now it seems to be going back into itself, the two protests feed into each other and are influenced by each other. The ultimate irony is that in some respects the protesters (despite themselves) seem to be wanting more of the same. The ex-ruling party GERB (whose acronym reads “citizens for the European development of Bulgaria) was the first party with an unprecedented amount of professionals in its rank and file. Moreover, it was the first party which formed a ministerial council with people considered to be pure experts, who did not hold membership in the party. In fact, less than 1/3 of the council of ministers are members of the party while the rest are represented with official biographies stressing their professional and academic achievements (i.e. the finance minister Dyankov heads a research center in Harvard and is a world renowned economist; the minister of justice used to head the Bulgarian branch of “Transparency International”, while the current president of the Republic and ex-minister for regional development had been a developer and a successful businessman, and did not have a single day of experience in any kind of politics prior to joining the government.) Yet, the record number of majoritarian anti-political experts and experienced businesspeople in government seems to be forgotten (as well as the first ever referendum since 1989 held under the same government). Paradoxically, the protesters against party politics are calling for less percent of civil society in government since in GERB’s cabinet they were around ¾ while the protesters want 50%. Yesterday a protest organizer said on one of the radio stations that “we want citizens-experts to rule via the implementation of citizens-expert policies and transparency. And also a good economist is needed right now.” (There are worst contradictions. Yesterday one of the organizers, Doncho Dudev, managed to achieve an immediate coincidence of opposites by saying that “we want nothing less of a revolution. We just ask that the laws be observed.”)

Thus, as Marx observed in 18th Brumaire, history repeats itself twice: first time as tragedy, second time as farce. The farcical element is that what passes as a revolution is really only more of the same: more experts, more transparency, more civil society, less politics (considered narrowly as party politics), pure democracy, stable middle class, and so on, ad nauseam. And when people get disappointed that this kind of post-political expert-managerial configuration does not work, they act as good Utopians: the problem is not the idea, but its misguided implementation. The only new element is the radicalization of the intolerance against the party system and the most democratic institution any liberal democracy can have: the parliament. This sentiment is shared across the political spectrum: not just anarchists and fascists but virtually everyone expresses fundamental distrust in parliament and the party system. The latter are pictured as a hostile place of lobbyists and corrupt politicians breeding antagonisms that obstruct access to the Real of national-civil unity-in-statehood. This view is shared by some members of parliament themselves, as yesterday’s parliamentary debates demonstrated. Hence these protests will be remembered for the political innovation of the excessively democratic postdemocracy whose main actors are citizens-people who shout “We are the state!” (A similar phenomenon was already present in the ecological protests since early 2000s when environmental activists used to adorn themselves with paper-cut gilded crowns in a conscious gesture of self-coronation and direct identification with the role of the sovereign assigned by the constitution).

Nevertheless, in the new democracy, the old liberal clichés might still be recycled, but the old liberal oppositions between the nation (“narod”), civil society and the state have collapsed beyond repair. The liberal and patriotic clichés act as a void discursive skeleton that is ready to be filled with new desires.

The 1989 transition was baptized with the liberal idea of “civil society against the state.” The above mentioned UDF (Union of democratic forces) began as a self-styled civil society association of individuals whose main purpose was not taking power but to help “dismantle the totalitarian machine and democratize the country.”[iii] The transition’s termination (if we may call thus the ushering of the new era of postdemocracy) begins under the heading of “civil society against the parties, in the state.” This urge for in-ness and oneness with a strong state shows us that we are dealing here with desire to purify civil society, the nation and the state from their constitutive contradictions and imbalances (while capitalism is conveniently not mentioned as a source of problems). In the new shared political imagination that is being forged right now on the streets, civil society is no longer the realm of particularistic and competing private interests but a unified force which seeks unity with itself and with the state against all mediators between it and its objective. Unfortunately, this model has nothing to do with the dictatorship of the proletariat and everything to do with the direct-democratic dictatorship of “the people” and their inability to register the contradictions that the capitalist system produces inside the national body. Rather, they are led by purifying impulses which externalize these contradictions onto a outside terrain: “it is the foreign brokers which suck our blood and also the political parties.” The meaning of “foreign” does not exhausted with reference to non-Bulgarian nationality only. “Foreign” seems to be the result of the alchemy of (failed) representation: one becomes foreign the moment one decides to become a representative/spokesperson for the protests. For example, the 21st February general assembly of the protests in Varna failed spectacularly to elect representatives. People violently rejected all contestants, thankfully, also an ex-soldier’s proposition that the protests should be lead by the army[iv]. (The same thing happened when two women from the protests were sent to represent them on the last press conference the prime minister gave before he resigned. The crowd immediately denounced them after the press conference. While one of the women was indeed too much pro-GERB biased, the other did not seem so, but shared the same fate and stigma as a “national traitor”.)

The reaction of the liberals to the protests can be summarized thus: while the protesters act like psychotics who foreclose the symbolic mediation of (party and managerial) signifiers, the liberals are like perverts who act as if they do not hear the demands for nationalization of the electric grid suppliers. (Where the demands for nationalization are acknowledged, this is usually accompanied by the typical liberal paranoid conspiracy theory that this will help “the Russians” monopolize and colonize our economy.[v]) The liberal commentators try their best to place the protests within standard liberal frames, i.e. “this is a protest for liberalization of the market, and for more transparency.” (aided perhaps by the void liberal discursive frames of the protests themselves). The problem with this argument is that the utility bills Bulgarians receive each month are already too transparent. Thus, people get to know that the producers of electricity charges say, 3 cents per kilowatt, but by the time it reaches the end consumer the price triples because there are many fees and distribution expenses, all of them duly listed. Too much transparency thus dialectalizes into its other of a “productivist” conspiracy theory where the good producers make cheap electricity and the bad, parasitic mediators triple its price at our expense. Enjoyment is always with the Other, says Lacan, and in this line of thought, we can understand how the most obvious solution that occurred to people is rejection of the brokers and direct plugging of oneself into the Real of the nuclear plant’s unlimited source of national enjoyment, completeness and warmth. Plugging that is structurally homologous to the rejection of symbolic mediation between the national-civil society seeking unmediated authenticity with the state and its pulsating (nuclear) heart.

“Real power directly to the people” is thus the necessarily ambiguous signifier of the crisis of symbolic mediation that is rocking the world of party politics and energy distribution.


[i] While some commentators, including the ex-prime minister, argue that the nazi involvement is due to a “manipulation of the protests”  by external forces, I am as usual suspect to such conspiratorial thinking. Firstly, it is not impossible to assume that the nazi hooligans can also be moved passionately by the empty signifiers of the original protests. Secondly, as I will show below, the seeds that arouse fascist fascination are already in the original protest. While I sympathize completely with the plight of the people who cannot pay their bills, I find alienating the direction the protests unsurprisingly turned.

By Jana Tsoneva

Jana 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).

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