Workers and the new power
The elections in November here in Bulgaria ended the cycle of protests and elections and consigned to history the era of Boyko Borissov and GERB 12 year rule of the country. The helm of the state today is in the hands of a motley coalition led by the freshly established ” We Continue the Change ” party, which has managed to concentrate in itself the hopes for change of hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians. The coalition includes the party of the ‘bare-headed showman’, which briefly concentrated the same hopes, as well as two of the ‘traditional parties’ – the BSP, which has been degraded to a third-rate political force, and the representatives of the so-called urban right from Democratic Bulgaria. But how colourful is this coalition and what can workers expect in the next four years?
On the face of it, we are facing a watershed moment. Wave of protests, four rounds of elections in one year and a complete replacement of the ruling majority, dominated by faces completely new to Bulgarian politics. We can consider that the protests and the elections fulfilled 100% the goals of the participants. Colourful as the new ruling coalition, the protests were led by two main groups. On the one hand, these were supporters of the BSP, Democratic Bulgaria and other smaller parties like Manolova’s failed project, who wanted to see their parties in government. On the other it was the large unorganised mass of people from all classes, dissatisfied with GERB’s rule, who simply wanted change, but without this change being clearly defined politically. The lack of political imagination and direction among the majority of the protesters limited the general desire for change to a simple replacement of faces in parliament. This situation is of course extremely advantageous for the parties that have used the protests as a springboard to power, as they themselves have nothing to offer but ‘new faces’, some of whom have not even been able to offer that. In fact, behind the enthusiastic protests and the colourful coalition that took power, there is a deep political inaction and uniformity. The political programmes of We Continue the Change, BSP, Democratic Bulgaria and “There is Such a Nation” party are practically identical to the one that GERB and the nationalist parties have been implementing for the last 12 years. In economic terms, this is the painfully familiar neoliberalism, or more specifically – privatisation, cutting public spending and attracting foreign investors through tax privileges for businesses, low wages for workers and a lack of regulation. As we clearly see not only in the dry political programs but also during the more animated political campaign – the discussion about the economic development of the country remains not just within the capitalist system but locked in the narrow confines of one of its most extreme possible realizations – neoliberalism. The economic debate is reduced to the question of how these types of neoliberal policies will be implemented and by whom. Political forces compete not in proposing different policies, but in promising to pursue the same policies as the others, but ‘expertly’, ‘with morality’, ‘without corruption’, etc. This process has degraded Bulgarian politics to a rhetorical casting, in which professional liars compete in showing off their personal qualities and exaggerating their opponent’s shortcomings. The political process is becoming something that is not only not democracy, but it is questionable whether it is politics at all. Party headquarters encourage this process of depoliticisation of society and their strategy seems to be working successfully in Bulgaria – the political imagination of the people, even when they protest, is limited to calls for ‘new faces’, ‘personalities not parties’ and ‘morality in politics’. Personal characteristics displace political agendas, which are all the same anyway. It is as if parties continue to write such only because of the inheritence, and what has become a purely formal association with the idea of a democratic process, in the same way that they are still called parties rather than ‘casting agencies for selecting electable politicians’, for example. The well-known characterisation of a revolutionary situation reads – “it is a situation in which the ruling class cannot, and the oppressed classes do not want to, live the old way”. Bulgaria is currently in the opposite situation – the oppressed classes want the only thing the ruling class can do.
In order not to speak abstractly and to support the above statements with facts, we need to read the programme of the newly established coalition in more detail. In it, we find the invariable ‘fight against corruption’, a reaffirmation of the country’s geopolitical orientation as part of the Euro-Atlantic military alliance and a raft of minor administrative reforms in state institutions. But let’s focus on those things in the new government’s political program that directly affect working people. First of all, we see highlighted in bold letters the commitment of the ‘new’ government to maintain the tax status quo in the country. This means that Bulgaria will continue with the neoliberal tax experiment and will remain the only country in Europe with a flat tax system. The flat tax shifts the tax burden from the richest and businessmen to the working and poor. In addition to the heavy blow to working people, the flat tax system is one of the main reasons for the systematic underfunding of the most important sectors of the economy – education, healthcare and the social system. The new government’s commitment to continue with the far-right tax experiment in Bulgaria (so right-wing that it makes Thatcher and Reagan look like socialists) will entrench and increase the country’s severe inequalities, which are among the main reasons why we are at the bottom of all European and many world rankings in categories such as illiteracy, access to quality health care, poverty, social exclusion and labour rights.
Another telling element of the first actions of the new government was the appointment of the head of one of the largest logistics companies in the country, Econt, Nikolai Sabev, as Minister of Transport. Putting aside the blatant lobbying that the appointment of a transport boss as transport minister undoubtedly represents, the appointment of this particular businessman, known for insulting and publicly mocking workers in his own company, should be a clear signal to all workers in Bulgaria. The new government is not a government of the workers, but a government of the bosses.
Another important point on the agenda of the new rulers that affects workers is health reform. During the election campaign, and during the discussions on the coalition agreement, we heard the political players making demands for serious reform, ‘stop the commercialisation of healhtcare’ and the abolition of the commercial status of hospitals. But all this talk, predictably, remained primarily within the realm of political propaganda. It turned out that the ruling parties of the motley coalition had no idea how and with what to change the status of hospitals, and putting a stop to commercialisation of health remained only a slogan. The advertised profound reform of health care has been reduced to the replacement of the clinical pathways system by diagnostic-related groups (DRGs), which are essentially just a different mechanism for implementing the same neoliberal approach to health care that is ‘working’ now – ‘money follows the patient’. In both clinical pathways and DRGs, hospitals compete for funding from the health fund, and wages and working conditions depend on the arbitrary discretion of the director who directs the cash flow, creating a suitable environment for widespread corruption and degradation of patient care and working conditions and wages for health workers. In fact, one of the first countries in Europe to replace clinical pathways with DRGs , Germany, is currently discussing a return to a clinical pathway system, as DRGs are proving even more destructive to the health system. At best, their introduction in Bulgaria will not change anything significant in our collapsing healthcare system. At worst, it will add to the problems. Despite this gloomy prognosis, the forthcoming reform at least retains a commitment to maintaining some public health care in the country, unlike the goals spelled out in the programs of some of the far-right opposition parties, such as Vuzrajdane (Revival), which directly call for privatization of the public health system.
Setting aside hopes for serious reforms in the country, we can look in more detail at some isolated actions of the new government affecting the working class that could be seen as positive. On taking power, the newly formed coalition announced indexation of pensions, imposed a moratorium on electricity price increases, fined mobile phone operators who tried to unilaterally increase consumer bills and announced an increase in teachers’ salaries from 1 January. Of course, we should not see these sporadic actions as some kind of long-term commitment to social policy by the new government, but rather as what they really are – extraordinary measures to contain the social crisis in the country as a result of the galloping inflation and limited economic growth caused by the pandemic. In this context, we can say with great certainty that these are measures that any government, even one of GERB if Borissov’s party had managed to hold on to power, would have implemented to limit the social effects of the crisis. Some of these measures are a direct continuation of the policy pursued by the previous rulers, such as the (albeit meagre) increase in teachers’ salaries.
Similarly, in the area of social policy. The new coalition has taken a relatively adequate stance on issues such as the vaccination campaign and countering the epidemic of violence and murder of women in Bulgaria. Unlike on economic issues, where the government will no doubt remain true to its class and continue to serve business and rob workers, in the area of social policies we can probably expect, or at least hope, that these relatively adequate positions will not be occasional.
While we should undoubtedly welcome the above actions of the new government, we must not allow ourselves to fall prey to the illusion that they are part of any coherent social programme. These are simply patches aimed at temporarily mitigating the effects of the neoliberal programme of the new rulers, which continues the tradition of previous governments – a wild neoliberalism enriching a privileged minority at the expense of the workers and the majority of the people of the country.
The opposition in the face of GERB, DPS and Vuzrajdane is no less politically inactive. Since all three parties cannot offer anything real to their voters, except more neoliberalism, they are unleashing comic campaigns directed against certain personalities, imaginary enemies and even supernatural forces. Across Europe, the traditional political parties are in crisis because of the increasingly blurred distinction between the political right and the political left. The reason for this is the liberal political consensus, dominant for decades, alternating (or sometimes uniting for convenience) centre-right and centre-left parties in power. In Bulgaria, we are years ahead in this respect, and here the distinction was blurred in the late 1990s, when the last vestiges of left politics were wiped out of Bulgarian politics and the various offshoots and metastases of the right alternated in power. Illustrative of this process is the peculiar transition that the BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party, the former communist party of Bulgaria) made to the right, moving rapidly from claims of social democracy, through neoliberalism to its current state as a third-rate conservative party using the rhetoric of the far right. This right-wing unification of the political landscape complicates the role of opposition parties like GERB, which must somehow present themselves to voters as a right-wing alternative to right-wing rule. Since a right-wing positioning only makes sense if there is a left-wing one, and there is no such thing in or out of government, GERB’s headquarters is forced to fabricate one. Since the government is clearly not left, the only way to draw any dividing lines remains geopolitical orientation. This leads to the comical accusations that Radev and the new government are Russian spies, and the equally comical linking of Russophilia to the left.
Of course all this is not GERB’s patent. The same tactics were used by the current rulers of Democratic Bulgaria, who, put in the same position – to be the right-wing opposition to the right-wing government – tried desperately to draw some dividing line using similar geopolitical conspiracy theories. The only ones who outdo GERB and the urban right in this regard are Vuzrajdane, who are waging the fight against their geopolitical enemy, in this case the US, by swallowing and spreading the most mindless American propaganda and the most bizzare conspiracy theories the American right is capable of producing. This unusual approach to anti-imperialism has led them down uncharted paths, with Vuzrajdane remaining the only Bulgarian party to stage a protest outside the US embassy in support of the US president. Though ridiculous, the power-grabbing efforts of nationalist parties like Vuzrajdane are dangerous. Like VMRO, NFSB and Ataka, these types of parties are willing to unscrupulously promote and exploit people’s fears to get their hands on power. The parties of the far right in Bulgaria are the agents of aggressive neoliberalism, and once in power, they begin to serve the interests of business and crush workers, pensioners and the poor most brazenly. Since they would find it difficult to gather support for their anti-social economic programme (insofar as brazenly serving business can even be called a programme) among the majority, these parties organise their campaigns by boldly pushing into territories, that other parties abhor – inciting ethnic and religious hatred, spreading anti-social conspiracy theories, xenophobia and racism, shifting the focus of workers from their material interests to identity politics and cultural confrontations. The far right’s appetite for power and the methods it uses to get at it weaken workers and serve the elite. They pose a threat to both ethnic peace in the country and to public health, including mental health.
Thus the picture of a government of bosses whose opposition is even more anti-worker and anti-social than the government itself is revealed to us. However much we may resent this situation, the truth is that the political forces in power and their programmes reflect the real balance of forces in the country. In Bulgaria we have a crushed, unorganised working class which has no political voice of its own, and which endures political humiliation with the same tolerance with which it endures the bosses excruciation. On the other side we have a consolidated business community which holds all the political and economic levers and dominates public life in the country – politically, economically and ideologically. It should therefore come as no surprise that any new political project claiming to bring about change ends up acting in an identical way to its predecessors – serving the profits of business rather than the interests of the majority. It is ridiculous to accuse voters of always “electing the wrong candidates”, simply because there are no right candidates who do not serve the interests of business at the expense of the majority, and there cannot be. Currently, in Bulgaria, the business class is the only class that has the power to impose its interests. For this to change, workers must become aware of and organise themselves as a political force. It is important to note here that by political force we do not mean a party. Political parties, like trade unions and other forms of social organisation, are only possible instruments for exercising this power. Political power is a derivative of economic power. Workers have economic power in their workplace. It is both realised and increased through strikes and trade union struggles through which workers impose their interests. When this power increases sufficiently, it also becomes political. When we observe the working class in Bulgaria this may seem strange and difficult to grasp, but if we look at the capitalist class, the so-called oligarchy, we can clearly see how it is not organised in a particular political party or organisation, but dominates (almost) all political parties and social organisations mainly through its economic power.
It draws its strength from the same place from which workers can draw – the workplace. This is where the business class accumulates its economic power through the extraction of profits from our labour, and its political power through the subordination of workers to the system of corporate hierarchy and discipline, the corporate vote being only one of its relatively minor manifestations. It is also where we as workers must focus our resistance to undermine the total power of business in Bulgaria and to assert our position as an independent political force in the country that has its own interests and the power to defend them. We can easily draw experience from countries where, although weakened in the 1980s and 1990s, the working class is again gaining strength and succeeding in challenging the hegemony of business, such as France, Italy and Spain. Even in the country that has served as a model for the neoliberal excesses applied in Bulgaria the United States, we have seen a rise in workers’ organisation and struggles, with over 100 000 workers taking part in strikes in October alone, and according to Gallup polls, support for trade union struggles among Americans has reached 65% – the highest level in 20 years.
We shouldn’t pin our hopes on the next messiah, whether he comes on a white horse from Harvard Business School or on a black jeep from Transition Business School. We should direct them to ourselves, our colleagues and our workplaces, which is the only place where we have power when we are organized. Fighting for the interests of working people is not learned at Harvard, it is learned during the struggles in factories and offices, in hospitals and schools. Only there can that strength be built to shake the hegemony of the business oligarchy and put the interests of workers first.