Legitimating Neoliberalism in times of crisis

 

The Bulgarian protests in 2013

posted at chronos.eu

by Georgi Medarov

 

The Bulgarian 2013 was marked by the largest protests since the 1990s. In February they were against austerity and high-electricity bills, toppling the center-right government praised by the EU for outstanding “stability”. It was a movement of hopelessness, triggered by the sheer impossibility to cover basic living costs. Initially protesters called for nationalization of foreign-owned electricity distribution companies, but soon denounced all parties and political representation as such. Next elections brought a wide-coalition, led by the ex-communist (now pro-business center-left) Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and backed by the liberal Movement for Rights and Liberties (DPS), supported by the Turkish minority, and the far right ATAKA (meaning Attack).

The new government claimed to be technocratic and BSP forgot its promises, for instance to displace the 10% flat tax with progressive taxation. It never challenged the austerity regime, neither did they question the authority of energy companies. BSP also pushed for hard core pro-business educational reform and for privatization of natural parks and water services. The immediate reason next protests round started in June was the appointment of a media mogul as a head of national security. Nonetheless, they never challenged business’ domination over politics in general and revived anti-communist slogans from the 1990s. Moreover, in the summer there were street riots insupport of austerity after the government decided to increase deficit merely from one to two percent. Why is that?

Anti-capitalist demands on a mass scale were unthinkable prior to February. Such demands are pretty troubling for old rightists, whose political formation lies in the 1990s. In 1997 anti-communists crushed the ex-communists due to BSP’s notorious failure to provide alternative to neo-liberalization. BSP was damaged so badly that it purged itself from any impurities and stepped on a firm neoliberal stance, fully in line with business’ interests, often time seven more than the right. A coalition government led by BSP in 2007, for example, introduced flat tax, among other extreme neoliberal measures. However, the old right was also severely wounded, after  their only full term in government (1997-2001), when they initiated heavy austerity, dismantling of welfare and mass privatization. Nevertheless, unlike BSP, the old right managed to establish cultural hegemony, holding key positions in research institutes, universities and the media. In the mid-2000s a new rightwing party was formed – GERB (an acronym for Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, but literally meaning coat of arms).

GERB adopted to the new social realities and managed to combine widespread socialist nostalgia with pronounced anti-communism. They understood well that “communism” could be more efficient not as a reference to the past, but to the present – giving a powerful ideological tool to explain why if capitalism was supposed to be that great, the vast majority lives in utter destitution. Their argument goes like this: “secret communist elite” is preventing us from enjoying “real” capitalism. “Authentic” capitalism is still what we must strive for, but somehow all actual capitalists  turn out to be “communists” in disguise.

The summer protests were seen as a way for the old right to regain their former glory by injecting them with anti-communist slogans and nostalgia for the 1990s. But they seem to forget that the meaning of “communism” changed, and now it is a way to rationalize new social inequalities and speak out against the capitalist elite. Thus rightists ended up calling for consumer boycotts against big business and condemning bankers by calling them “communists”. Nevertheless, this does not mean they somehow became progressive – for the political and the corporate elite the government was not “moral”, in their words, since even more radical liberalization was required.

BSP effectively used right-wing slogans to take the upperhand, reclaiming  its left identity without having to implement any left policies. Actually many activists from the Summer were complicit, claiming to represent those “able to pay their bills”, unlike “the poor masses” from February. BSP also capitalized from the widespread discontent with the hegemony of the old right. Or rather from the social anger of the impossibility to be represented not only electorally, but in public debate, dominated by neoliberal technocrats. Unfortunately, such discontent is framed in conspiratorial language, akin to the rightists’. Here though the signifier is not the “communists”, but the “sorosoids”, derived from George Soros, allegedly “pulling the strings” of the protests from abroad.

BSP did that by proposing Dostena Lavergne for an MEP candidate in the upcoming elections. Lavergne is influential Bulgarian left intellectual who published an important study of Bulgarian neoliberal think tanks, arguing they monopolize all political discourse. Her book obtained tremendous popularity, although read in conspiratorial and simplistic ways, and not in terms of potential counter-hegemonic practice. Despite her intentions, she is now raised as a banner by BSP to claim a left identity vis-a-vis the Summer protests, without having to implement any left reform. Thus mainstream parties, both center-“left” and right, are now regaining legitimacy from the very protests that tried to challenge their dominance.

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ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 10 (02.2014)

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