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Bulgarian Commons: Historical Context Matters
Mon, 08/13/2012 - 16:14
After a week at the beach, I'm back at my desk and tracking all things commons. --DB
A recent piece by social anthropologist Mariya Ivancheva of Central European University in Sofia reminds us that the political and culture context of the commons matters a great deal in how we think about it – much more than we might imagine. Her piece appeared at OpenDemocracy and was excerpted by Michel Bauwens at the P2P Foundation blog.
Ivancheva notes how the commons is experiencing a big surge in western Europe, especially in Italy, but she stresses that the history of Bulgaria is quite different from that of western Europe. Western European commoners have fought the privatization of public resources such as water (Italy), cultural works (the ACTA treaty) and housing (Spain and France). While eastern Europeans have also protested various acts of privatization, many of them favor the commons in some respects while viewing private property and (capitalist) economic development more favorably. She writes:
For the majority of people who grew up imbued with neoliberal ideology nurtured by anti-communist and anti-communal narratives – hegemonic public discourse in east-central Europe since 1989 – the idea of “the commons” does not make much sense. Many prefer an opt-in and opt-out strategy: they stand against the privatization of nature and for the privatization of industry and services; against the pollution of water and soil, but for the private property and “management” thereof; against the cutting of funds in the education sector, but for “efficiency” and individual survival by competition within the educational and job sector.
At the same time, the debates in the public forums surrounding the anti-Forestry Act protests [opposing ski-tourism facilities on public land] made clear the elite-driven public they attracted. The discourse is centered on preserving individual liberty and urges people to choose their struggles selectively (even when undergoing urgent political developments). This became even more problematic once you added in the manifest feeling of entitlement that people with upper social and significant geographical mobility demonstrated. As the author of one manifesto that became famous among protesters claimed, “We are against the limitation of the possibilities of development.”
This question also introduces another level of complexity into the post-socialist, former “second world.” As Joan Subirats has argued in his recent piece for openDemocracy: “When we talk about “the commons”, we must invariably refer to the community and the relationships that sustain and run it… to relationships, social values, conventions, processes of involvement and/or mobilisation, and norms that help to organise this resource and the social derivatives that collective use and governance demand.”
Taking an example from Bolivia, Walter Mignolo has argued that when moving out of the European context, the appropriate category is not “the commons,” but instead “the communal.” In these contexts, the forms of communal living and management of shared resources are or were once endemic to local populations, and these need to be rediscovered and saved from capitalism and occidentalism. This approach is, however, inappropriate for semi-peripheral regions like east-central Europe, where endogenous forms of communal management and resistance have long disappeared without trace, thanks to paternalistic state socialism and the brutal privatization of every sphere of economic life following it.
…..Of course, with its centralized party-state, top-down management, and repressive state apparatus, the socialist state did not leave much space for self-management or spontaneous communal organizing. To speak of “communal” property and management of resources in contemporary Bulgaria – and arguably in other post-socialist countries – is slightly embarrassing: in these highly atomized societies the term “community” does not exist on the ground and is hard to operationalize in any meaningful sense. Besides, neoliberal discourse and developmentalist ideology still control the imaginations of the majority of people from across the class spectrum. In the recent Bulgarian protest wave, both farmers and middle class Sofians expressed interest in “proper” capitalist development, investment, and management, all operating within the frame of free market competition. As one of the members of the coalition “For Vitosha” claimed at a public debate on “the commons”: “You cannot leave the ski-lift to the people from the village below the ski-track – this is non-sense. Only a private owner will develop it well under healthy competition”.
One of the more surprising developments cited by Ivancheva is the seizure of commons discourse by right-wing Bulgarian nationalists. She notes, “In its fight to reframe the issue at stake, the extreme right is claiming “the commons” on behalf of ethnically pure Bulgarians and blaming Roma, Turkish and increasingly, migrant minorities, for the concessions the state makes to them at the expense of Bulgarians. This highly distorted version of reality has now entered the press mainstream and has been adopted by circles much broader than the electorate of the extremists.”
Another red flag that Bulgarian commons raise is the proper boundaries of commons in a globally integrated world. Are commons confined to national territories? If not, it would appear that commons in richer countries are dependent upon certain forms of imperialist access to commons in poorer countries. How shall we deal with this fact? Ivancheva:
While the reclamation of “the universal commons” is driven by core countries in the world system on behalf of populations that lack basic resources on their territory, it maintains a highly colonialist dimension. We still live in a world in which resources and primary goods are abundant mostly at places where local populations live with extremely little and labour to provide countries with few locally abundant basic “commons” of their own, the extra consumption goods they require. When speaking of European primary goods such as food, oil, and services, we cannot forget that they often come from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The overall problem of whether “the commons” are national, local, regional or universal remains still very much central to the debate. Despite this, in recent years the question of national sovereignty over basic resources is pushed off the political agenda with an air of superiority typical both of the liberal political correctness and of the European Left’s cosmopolitan pretense to universal entitlement. At the same time, liberal discourses are often strikingly shortsighted, focusing too often on access to “the commons” in order to provide leisure for elites and not the wider redistribution of access to goods and services. Thus, in contexts where “the communal” is not to be found in recent layers of history it urgently needs to be manufactured anew, avoiding both the nationalist and the colonial trap.”
I think Ivancheva unfairly ascribes the behavior of richer industrialized countries to commoners (when in fact that behavior is driven by corporatists and liberals). I also think she downplays the egalitarian motives of the European Left (I find very few elites – in Europe or elsewhere – with any interest in the commons). Liberals who talk about the commons rarely know what they're talking about and should not be taken as reliable spokespeople for the commons.
Still, Ivancheva raises an issue that the European Left may not fully appreciate (for which easy answers are certainly not at hand). How shall the commons be theorized when resource provisioning in the West is so intertwined with international markets that prey upon poorer, less industrialized countries? What are the ethically or politically proper boundaries of commons in this multilateral context? Difficult questions. The full article is here.