Goodbye, Mr. Post-Socialism?March 15, 2008
by Vassil Genchev
It is tempting, for neo-liberal enthusiasts and ‘progressive moderates’ (whatever these two terms might mean) alike, to think of Bulgaria as a modernising new EU member state, embracing the advantages of ‘late-comers’ in economic growth and moving firmly into the pattern of a liberal democratic free-market society. Yet, this pattern is nothing but the shared dream of unlikely bed fellows. And much like in the supposedly shared dreams of couples nested under a common blanket, the dream-like vision of modern Bulgaria can mean different things to different parties.
Actually, things are much simpler in real dimension, that is, if the dream is brought down to its materialist logic. To render a dream into reality might be attacked as a counter-logical babble by a well-minded rationalist. Conversely, it can be interpreted as the unleashing of a destructive force bound to shatter one’s symbolic order. I stick to the latter option and believe that the reality of our post-Socialist, post-IMF package, post-privatisation, post-EU, etc. society is upset, shattered and distorted beyond repair by the impossibility of reconciling everyone’s dream in the current order of things. Yet, the clash of dreams at the symbolic order is in a close relationship with the material conditions. A good departure, which is close to the everyday ‘Europeanised’ Bulgarian political and business discourse, is the phrace pronounced by an unnamed EU official – ‘the beef is in the programming!’ A great part of the political and business class, but no less reflecting the general sentiment in the population as a whole, is involved in dismissing Eurocrats as a bit naïve, a bit too uptight gentlemen (or women) who are to be shown around the country a bit and then coaxed into footing the bill for local patronage and nepotist networks. Moreover, there is the recognition that some Eurocrats already ‘know how to do it’, that is to divert public money into private pockets. From them we should learn is the message circulated among the criminal-political-economic elite. I was not surprised when a woman, involved in public relations work for some political figures and shady ‘businessmen’ shared with me that the future of our country is in becoming an offshore zone.
The fabric of many current Bulgarian dreams is reflected in this offshore ‘aspiration’. It reflects material values – offshore zones can secure a dream life (literally, in the sense of buy-property-in-the-sun brochures) for those who cash in the benefits. Also, it reveals a very confused perception of modernity, brought by among other things about lack of interest in or lack of access to quality education, and shared by many Bulgarians. As much as one is willing to accept the ‘West’ or free market uncritically as ‘the right thing’ – why not settle for offshore? The logic runs: offshore is connected to money, money is good, offshore is good for Bulgaria. Ultimately, the offshore dream also points to the schizophrenic obsession with the nouveau riche. It is rational to despise them for being corrupt criminals who rob public money, smuggle illicit goods and avoid taxes, yet the dream is to be like them and achieve their lifestyle. It would have been refreshing to have a populist party, which instead of the usual rhetoric of punishing the criminals and expropriating their property, offers its members the potential of sharing the spoils after the election and building a lifestyle resembling theirs. Such platform can be realised on a rotational system. The country is not big and surely a sufficient number of voters can be accommodated with material goods for a certain period, much like the policy of providing benefits such as company cars to employees of the more prosperous firms. This would of course inject too much rationality into the dream and ultimately kill it. The impossibility of the offshore dream makes it a much better libidinal fantasy, one that cannot be realised but allows everyone to fantasise how he or she will enjoy spending the booty obtained from the tax evaders.
There is an old Bulgarian joke which reads that the young want to do it, but they do not know how, the older know how to do it, they can do it but do not want to, and the oldest know how to do it and they want to but they cannot do it. The reality in Bulgaria (of course, shaped by the dream universe, as we already established) is rather a condition in which no one knows how to do it, the old think they knew but even if they did, their current perception of their has-been knowledge and ability (just like one’s perception of past libidinal feats) is distorted. To this point I will return in my concluding words. When it comes to ‘the older’ in the story, which in our post-socialist reality sometimes refer to themselves as ‘the lost generation’ – that is people who were in their prime when the Berlin Wall fell and found themselves quickly disillusioned by the brutal realities of transition in the 1990s – the joke suddenly becomes indicative of our reality. These people, in their fourties and fifties now, generally thought they were dismantling what their parents thought they building some decades before and what had turned into corrupt and unviable regimes headed by totalitarian structures. These people were the multitude, in the sense that they unleashed their revolutionary potential, emerging together on the streets and squares, albeit with different ideas of what they were fighting for and who they were fighting against. Note that at that time, just like their parents, many of them thought they were all fighting for a common cause against a common, if already ailing and almost defunct, enemy. One could argue the dreams of the parents were more coherent – the idea of a just and free socialist society was worth going through the pains of actually existing socialism.
Ideology, however, was killed by the very promises made in order to strengthen it. The promise for ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and the constant forward-looking towards the achievement of ‘real communism’ effectively corrupted the premise of the socialist order as a system of values. Same with democracy. The deal was sweetened with the promise of future capitalist prosperity – tighten the belts now, get some shock therapy and wait for ‘actually existing capitalism’. It is clear that had not the hollowed ideology of democracy and freedom occupied centre-stage during the mass street rallies at the wake of the Berlin Wall collapse, the transition could now be considered an outright success. Free markets, private property, shopping centres and supermarkets full of goods – these should have been the only promises at the onset of transition. And so they would have delivered and capitalism would have irrefutably been the more efficient, cost-effective, promise-delivering doctrine, waving goodbye at the impotent spectre of communism which never materialised into ‘actual existence’.
Had people, at the individual and multitude level, not invested so much of their dreams into the outcome and goals of transition, they would have been victors by now. Unfortunately, post-Socialist transitions were full of ideologies imposed by the great Superego of the present symbolic order in politics shaped by the West, the US, the hypocritical and hollow insistence of international institutions on democracy and good governance as conditions for economic growth, the EU’s conditionality. The clash was apparent – if all I wanted was Spearmint and a pair of Nike, I could not get it. I had to settle for liberal democracy, human rights, free and fair elections first.
In the dream universe of the Bulgarian society we live in, the dreams of the past are expected to be left intact. Disturb them and the weak edifice of the present dreams will likely crumble. Those who believed in building utopian Communism would not see themselves as victims of a dominant ideology, a dream universe which was superimposed on their own dreams until they recognised it as their own. To make the point clear – it was not Communism that people were building, it was maintaining a totalitarian regime directed by a ruling class well-inserted, as it is currently clear, into the global capitalist order. Those who believe they were taking part in the dismantling of Communism are also disillusioned and indeed even their supposed ideological and theoretical ally Fukuyama had it rather harsh in lauding the ‘end of history’. What ‘end of history’ was he talking about?!? The sense in Bulgaria and I believe in the rest of Eastern Europe was that of history in the making – holding the first free elections in decades, building democracy, affirming human rights. Perhaps, those who wanted Spearmint and Nike are the only ones who fulfilled their dream. Unfortunately, there are those who ruin it by saying they have fallen victim to the ideology of consumerism… Indeed, if we are to follow Marx’s idea of ideology expressed with: ‘they have it but they do not know it’, almost every lasting sentiment which gets a dimension of commonality becomes an ideology. Or a dream, depending on how you wish to call it.
Much like in the old joke I mentioned above, the productive intercourse – which for the purpose of this article I over-simplify as ‘the ideological awareness leading to social emergence which leads to a progressive change in the order of things’ – fails to happen and wherever there are potential openings, they are left unexploited. Of course the offshore dream is not going to take the place because Liechtenstein has already done it. Of course the EU-will-fix-it dream is just wishful thinking because of the we-know-how-to-steal-it reality. And of course, the cheap labour to attract FDI dream to make us rich dream cannot happen because the Vietnamese and the Indians are already providing their services for less. So what is left? I place hope only in the emergence of the multitude, the collective participation in politics and society assisted by the shift towards immaterial labour. The workers in the knowledge sector, which is becoming prevalent also in Europe, can stand up to exploitation from employers and abuse of public property by corrupt officials only by coming up together as a class and articulating their demands in recognition of the existing structures of power. Understanding the tacitly oppressive conditions which underline the post-Socialist order is the only way for a step forward. Yet, it is difficult because of the varied ambient noise generated by the entertainment-media complex and the dominant ideologies of foreign investors and international institutions. And a final simplification to conclude – the only progressive step forward can happen not by giving a piece of the Spearmint to the poor in Africa or the Roma, not by recycling the wrapping, or by creating a bubble popping fundraiser for tsunami victims. It can happen only by realising what the capitalist product (of course, taken in a broad sense as a concentration of social, economic and cultural structures and relations) stands for, what are the material conditions involved in its production and what is its impact in post-post Socialist Europe.