“Communists” on the shop floor

Anticommunism, crisis, and the transformation of labor in Bulgaria

in Focaal
View More View Less
  • 1 Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology dimitra.koft i@yahoo.com

Abstract

This article discusses perceptions of continuity and change as viewed from the shop floor of a privatized postsocialist factory. Neoliberal templates have reshaped the organization of production and resulted in a fragmentation of the workforce and new inequalities. These shifts, which have become main topic of everyday workplace conversation, have not generated critical commentary on wider encompassing neoliberal inequalities. Instead, critique has centred on the inequalities of “communism”. Workers talk about radical upheavals and successive crises but also emphasize significant continuities of power that have bridged socialism and neoliberal capitalism. Thus, even pro-market, neoliberal practices and forms of power are often described as “communist”, situated within an entrenched establishment that originated in the socialist era. Therefore, criticisms of neoliberal transformations are often framed in terms of an anticommunist rhetoric.

“Stop Communism” was a slogan found in Sofia’s urban spaces during the 2013–2014 protests (see Figure 1), which also saw protesters characterizing Bulgarian politics and po liticians as “red trash,” a label used variously since the 1990s. This article, based on long-term field-work at Sofia’s Mladost factory since a few years before the protests,1 offers a historically informed ethnography of the ways in which factory employees participated in and made sense of the everyday politics of labor and their use of terms like “reds” and “communists” in the context of privatization and the transformation of power relations on the shop floor. Similar to other formerly socialist countries, the process of privatizing state enterprises revealed a wide gap between initial expectations and the realities of transition (Hann and Hart 2011: 133), and workers often blamed “communists” for related failures. I take inspiration here from Raymond Williams’s (1983 [1976]) Keywords in that I view “communism” and “red trash” as keywords of the postsocialist era’s historical context of successive economic crises. As Williams pointed out, during periods of intense transformation, the meanings of words and the rhythms and tones of utterances may change slowly or more rapidly; words and concepts referring to values and

Figure 1
Figure 1

At a metro station in Sofia, November 2013. (Author’s photo)

Citation: Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 2016, 74; 10.3167/fcl.2016.740106

ideas may have various and sometimes contradictory meanings. While societal change is not linguistic, language use is an important register of change (1983 [1976]: 17). Almost two-and-a-half decades after the end of the socialist regime in Bulgaria, “communism” is a keyword indicating a certain experience of power relations and formulating political ideas and ideological vocabularies. I argue that addressing the ubiquitous anticommunist rhetoric is essential to understanding socio-political processes in Bulgaria because of its pervasiveness in everyday discussions of politics and power. Therefore, I consider a wide spectrum of meanings for the concepts of “communism” and “communist” in Bulgaria in particular (Dimitrova 2010) and Eastern Europe in general (Poenaru 2013) with regard to anticommunism since 1990.

Anticommunism is widespread in Eastern Europe among elites and the general public alike (Kalb 2011). Yet the topic lacks scholarly attention, perhaps due to the strength of the phenomenon itself and its hegemonic role in legitimizing postsocialist privatization (Kalb ibid). According to Poenaru, one of the few to have researched anticommunism ethnographically, the history of the postsocialist period has been mainly written by anticommunist intellectual elites and dissidents in Romania (2013: 14), and it is only since the late 2000s that some anti-anticommunist voices have become audible. Similarly in Bulgaria, anticommunism is well grounded in dominant academic and everyday discourse (Dimitrova 2010); it has been largely naturalized and tends to be taken for granted. Recent literature on working-class populism has mainly focused on nationalist movements that have emerged in the neoliberal context (Kalb 2009; Kalb and Halmai 2011). In line with this literature, which aims to understand the political experiences of the dispossessed in the neoliberal era, I argue that attending to the uses and meanings of “communism” in the context of anticommunist hegemonies may contribute to an understanding of the rise of right-wing ideologies. Moreover, the ethnography here suggests that anticommunism contributes to our understanding of the implementation of neoliberal politics of production; that is, attending to shifting practices of production shows how anticommunism is intertwined with neoliberal transformations in the organization of labor and the everyday politics of work.

Employers and managers in postsocialist countries often accuse workers of being “inefficient,” “inflexible,” and “lazy,” blaming the legacy of communism for perceived shortcomings in work ethic (Dunn 2004; Angelidou and Kofti 2013). Bulgaria is no different from the rest of the postsocialist world in this respect; managers often reasoned that as the flexibilization of labor proceeded, it might become necessary to implement tiered pay or to outsource labor in order to avoid “communist habits” in production. This managerial reasoning followed an anticommunist hegemonic logic; meanwhile, workers conversely blamed “communism” for current inequalities in the workplace and believed their managers had acquired power through “communist” connections. One might expect new managerial practices to draw legitimacy from their opposition to the previous regime. However, anticommunism as expressed by workers dispossessed during the postsocialist era took a seemingly unexpected form, which therefore made it worth researching. Hence this article focuses on the workers, although it is based on a wider ethnographic inquiry at Mladost. I begin with the critical moment of “crisis,” another keyword that generated shifts on the shop floor and talks about power and politics.

Crisis as continuity and discontinuity

During a period of widespread stress attributed to the 2008 economic crisis, the following joke was circulating among workers at the Mladost Glassworks factory in Sofia:

Crisis is flying on her airplane above Europe. When she gets over Bulgaria, she thinks about landing. Finally, she decides to continue her flight and land elsewhere. “Why land here? I have always been here,” she concludes.2

The 2008 financial crisis was viewed by many of the Mladost workers as just “one more crisis” in Bulgaria. This joke vividly negotiates crisis in terms of both rupture and continuity. The punchline highlights continuity rather than rupture and underlines the blurred boundaries between “normality” and “crisis” (Roitman 2014; Shevchenko 2009). The employees’ responses to the notion of “financial crisis” revealed these blurred lines. In 2008–2009, news about the crisis broke long silences on the shop floor, triggering discussions and renegotiations over the shifting postsocialist working conditions I address in this article. Koselleck suggested that one should be careful in adopting the concept of “crisis,” since “it has been transformed to fit the uncertainties of whatever might be favored at a given moment” (2006: 399). Here the period of global economic crisis is an ethnographic moment that provoked discussions about labor conditions and brought back memories of successive crises. Also, and more important for the purposes of this article, it highlighted both continuity and discontinuity in power relationships, as well as production and gender politics inside Mladost in the context of ongoing transformations related to privatization. The “crisis” became one more temporal point of comparison with “the past” (edno vreme, “in the old times”).

Employees cited various temporal turning points in their daily discussions; the present was often compared to a “before” that sometimes meant the socialist period, or the period prior to privatization, which began in 1998, or prior to the staff cuts that started in the early 1990s. Temporalizations of the compared past varied by speaker and sometimes shifted even within one and the same narration. Common narrative turning points were the end of the Bulgarian socialist regime and various periods of hardship since the 1980s, the Bulgarian economic crisis of 1997 and the subsequent privatization of the plant. In late 2008/early 2009 a new actuality faintly emerged, a new “now” demarcating the recent crisis, which became juxtaposed against a new “before.” As Portelli suggests, “In memory, time becomes ‘place’: all the recollected past exists simultaneously in the space of mind. Speakers therefore may tend to arrange events along paradigmatic lines of similarity rather than along syntagmatic lines of chronological sequence” (1997: 32). In the case I am presenting here, such paradigmatic lines of similarity formed two parallel and seemingly contradictory narratives of “everything has changed” and “everything is the same,” which I view as two sides of the same coin—they both represent ways of making sense of rapidly changing social, economic and political conditions. The combination of these phrases is similar to Alphonse Karr’s often quoted epigram, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose). However, at Mladost the two phrases would not go together so systematically. Rather, each was expressed contextually, as I present here ethnographically.

Workers often said that “everything has changed here,” accompanied by comments on previous, often idealized, descriptions of working conditions on the shop floor.3 Less often but still frequently heard was, “everything is the same” and “we workers are always workers,” comments bitterly uttered and implying that things had not gotten any better since “the past.” “Everything has changed” became more common during the early days of the so-called global economic crisis of 2008 and even more so during the early 2009 Russia-Ukraine gas dispute, which resulted in the gas supply of several European countries—Bulgaria included—being cut off. Mladost was forced to shut down two out of four production lines, generating fears of further layoffs. One of the continuities that the “everything is the same” alluded to was that “communists” were still the ones ruling the factory. The ethnography that follows investigates what was perceived as having changed and what was seen as a continuation of the past, as well as who the “communists” were.

Within a relatively short period Mladost went through changes of ownership, managerial practices, and labor structure, accompanied by massive layoffs, similar to other postsocialist workplaces (Dunn 2004; Müller 2004; Vodopivec 2010). Exploring what workers meant when they opposed the “new” to the “past” was easier than understanding what workers at the lower echelons meant when they said “nothing has changed.” Therefore, after discussing the experience of change, I turn to that of remaining the same. The latter mostly implied the ongoing sense of powerlessness felt by workers, who labeled the contemporary power structures “communist.”

“Everything has changed”

Mladost had been a presocialist glass workshop, which was nationalized under socialism and, along with other workshops, became part of a large-scale glassworks industry employing Soviet technology and expertise. This industry demonstrated considerable growth until the end of the 1970s but was facing financial difficulties by the end of the 1980s that deepened in the early 1990s. However, it continued operating as a state company until its privatization in 1998. Gradually it has become one of the many companies worldwide that has adapted to templates of post-Fordist capitalism: it has downsized its workforce and operations, focused on core production, and subcontracted a variety of operations and services. “Everything has changed” summarizes the emerging capitalist relations and ongoing reorderings of the production process and of power relationships among owners, managers, and workers.

Since privatization the workforce has undergone significant cuts, and the practice of subcontracting labor to third parties has split the workforce into regular (employed by Mladost) and casual (employed by subcontractors) staff. By the time of my fieldwork, the workforce was 290 people, down from 1,050 in 1998. Some of the laid-off workers returned to the plant through subcontractors, this time with a more flexible employment status. These casual workers, mostly women and Roma men, filled lower-level positions, defined as “unskilled.” Regular workers had better, “skilled” jobs. The distinction the company drew between skilled and unskilled work was not always based on workers’ previous training and capacity but more on what Thompson has described as “socially constructed skills” (1988: 47). Many identical posts at Mladost were assigned to both casual, “unskilled” and regular “skilled” employees who continued to perform the same tasks at the same machines, but with significantly different income, employment status, and benefits.4 This resulted in conflicts of interest and strong hierarchical divisions between workers.

In addition, machinery renovation and a gradual emphasis on core production—that is, on the mass production of bottles—enabled further staff reduction. Before privatization, production proceeded Monday through Saturday, with minimal weekend staff. The introduction of new technologies and new managerial politics enabled 24/7 production, leading to the implementation of overnight shifts. Workers were now scheduled to four-day shifts, weekdays and weekends alike. This was the case for both regular and casual workers. Divided by their post-Fordist employment statuses, they were working together on a Fordist-type nonstop production line, with no possibility of changing the speedy pace of the conveyor belt and of having weekend breaks.

Another division among employees formed according to worker pay within the groups of regular and casual workers respectively. Before privatization, employees were paid by position, with the pay of those in like positions varying only according to seniority. Moreover, the pay grades over the hierarchical range had been relatively equitable at Mladost. After privatization, salaries began to be linked to “performance,” in the words of managers and human resources staff, even in cases of job posts where workers performed the same tasks on the same conveyor belt. Thereafter it became common for salaries to vary by as much as 70 percent for the same job and employment status, which increased tension on the shop floor.5 Mladost does not seem to be an exception in Bulgarian industry. Although access to resources, the “property of the people,” had not been equal under socialism, there had been employment stability and income parity among groups (Topalova and Hristov 2010: 160). Income inequality and poverty and the demise of social welfare followed soon after the collapse of socialism (Dimitrov 2001: 62–63).

These divisions were exacerbated with the promotion of a myth of upward mobility promoted by the management in the face of actual downward mobility among manual laborers. Mladost’s managers would insist that “the more capable” workers would get paid more and have access to promotion opportunities, while in reality their livelihoods were becoming more precarious, comparable to those reported in other ethnographies of decline, labor flexibilization, and dispossession (Mollona 2009; Narotzky and Smith 2006; Ngai 2005; Parry 2013; Spyridakis 2013). Gradually the regular posts decreased and former regular workers sought employment at Lytan, the main outsourcer for Mladost. More importantly, although fired Mladost workers could be employed by Lytan, mobility in the opposite direction was not possible. An unwritten contract between Mladost and Lytan stipulated that once a worker was employed in the latter, he or she could not be employed as a regular worker in the future. As the workers used to say, “Once in Lytan, always in Lytan.” This prospect created strong competition between regular workers on the shop floor.

The process of downsizing was part of the closing down of the entire domestic glass production sector, which, according to the new owners, was not profitable. The library and sports center closed, and the holiday sea resort for workers was sold. Workers’ canteens, uniform tailoring services, and some parts of production, such as the packaging of final products, were outsourced. Under socialism, the workplace had been a “total social institution” (Humphrey 1995) where the annual and daily schedules of workers, both inside and outside the work-place, were largely shaped by factory-related activities. The above changes are reflected in the plant’s architectural structure, as approximately 35 percent of its buildings are abandoned and dilapidated. Constant reminders of the ongoing transformation, these perishing buildings frequently provoked comments such as, “Once this building was full of life.”

The production changes that led to staff cutbacks and to the sharp division between regular and contract workers were implicitly or explicitly apparent in present understandings of labor relations. Often narratives about the past would actually be commentaries on the present. Magda, a fifty-five-year-old worker at Mladost for thirty years, who was now operating one of the newly introduced nonstop fast machines, said, “Once we used to sing all together during the breaks … during work as well.” She had not made any explicit comparison with the present, though the implication was clear. Under the new conditions workers would have had no opportunity to sing together, since they no longer had common breaks and could not hear each other over the noisy new machines while working. Before privatization, she used to work in the now-closed handmade glass sector, which had a slower production tempo. During another conversation Magda said that there was no competition over who would keep their job at the factory before, and people had closer relationships. Again she used the example of singing as proof. The idea that in the past workers had strong bonds and shared many activities appeared in various forms and contexts. Viewing the production building from the yard, Ivan, a thirty-five-year-old who had started working only two years before privatization, said, “Once we used to be like a family here.” I asked him how things were now, and he pointed to the supervisor sitting in a chair while two workers were busy on the high-temperature machines: “Do you see now? Do you know how much bigger a salary he gets than we do? At least four times more.” This recurrent idealization of earlier conditions may not have helped me understand past conditions, but it certainly said a lot about the present. As Portelli underlines, such idealizations are ways to tell other truths (1997: 20). Similarly, the repeated comparisons of past and present conditions should not be taken as factual accounts about the past but rather as ways to highlight the novelty of the labor conditions under privatization.

This “once in the past” imagery, which was often expressed through the Bulgarian phrase edno vreme, usually referred to the preprivatization period, or the socialist period, without naming it. “Once in the past” points to things believed to be lacking in the present and thus highlights discontinuities with “the past” as an abstraction rather than with a specific period. Through this blurred temporal framework, positive evaluations about the period of socialism were positioned in “the past.” For the workers, the “new” conditions amounted to diminished prospects both within and outside the factory. However, the very same flexible work conditions under neoliberal policy were also associated with continuities. These were often viewed as negative and were temporally configured as occurring “during communism” rather than “in the past.” I now turn to representations that highlight continuities.

But “everything is the same”

Beginning in the autumn of 2008, Bulgarian media attention became focused on the so-called global financial crisis, and more specifically on the threats to foreign companies based in Bulgaria. In the context of ongoing transformations at the production level, many Mladost workers viewed the crisis as just another in a succession of crises that had plagued Bulgaria since the 1990s. This sense of familiarity did not reduce its severity or impact, however, instead deepened their insecurity and precarity.

During the summer of 2008, employees had been expecting the yearly news about potential salary raises. With the inflation rate having risen to 12.5 percent, many found the 2 percent they finally received inadequate. During the winter of 2008–2009 new layoffs and more precarious contracts were introduced by the management. These were presented mostly as managerial responses to the economic crisis. The ongoing precaritization, while described as “new” and unprecedented, was also recognized as part of a repetitive normality. The global financial crisis reminded workers of other periods of hardship like the economic downturn of the 1980s, and especially that of the 1990s.6 In 1996–1997 the Bulgarian economy was hit by hyperinflation, which resulted in the collapse of the banking system and of both state-owned and private companies.7 Employees working in Mladost during that time often recalled earlier periods when deprivation had been so severe that there was not enough food to go around. People talked about the unsold products that filled the factory warehouses and, for lack of storage space, were accumulating outdoors. Afterwards, the economy was subject to new privatization projects that affected large-scale production companies (Dimitrov 2001), including Mladost, and banks.

Alternative subsistence practices formed another central theme in discussions concerning continuities between the current “crisis” and earlier periods of hardship. Many employees’ households grew their own fruit and vegetables. Should “one more crisis” come, this practice, which had been retained since socialist times (Smollett 1989; Kaneff 1998; Jung 2009), would serve as a safety net. Although the quantity of home-grown food was too small to balance the effects of unemployment, “crisis” discourse often focused on these subsistence practices. Milena, a forty-year-old worker, said: “We will manage once more, even if I get laid off. I have collected enough food in jars for the winter … I know how to deal with it … that’s how we did it during other crises … we are already used to it.” As a response to a general distrust of industrial wages, workers in Bulgaria and other postsocialist countries developed alternative coping strategies in case of market failure (Pine 2001).

Many thought the “crisis” was not “real.” They would say that the sole function of reports emphasizing the poor state of the economy was to legitimate further cutbacks: During a break, Vasko, a forty-six-year-old male regular worker, wondered: “How come there is a crisis here? Lorries still queue outside the plant every morning in order to buy our products. Sales continue, but they [the management] lie to us in order to fire people once more.” Some of his colleagues nodded in agreement. Many workers were blurring the line between political, media, and managerial discourses on the necessity of cutbacks. They also blurred the boundaries between the macro scale of the national political scene and the micro scale of the factory. In a way, they echoed a general view that the “crisis” was being instrumentalized by those with power against those without power—specifically, either the government or the factory management against the workers.

Still, this was too general, and I kept wondering what people really meant when they said that “everything has stayed the same.” Which were the implicit comparisons on which this statement was based? When I posed these questions directly, responses were usually brief, such as, “we are always the workers,” “we are like slaves,” “we are always the ants and they are always the ladybugs.” “They,” a characterization often attributed to those in power (see, for example, Toranska 1988), refers here to those in decision-making positions at the factory, but were “they” the shop floor supervisors, the managers, and/or the owners? Or could it be that “they” did not necessarily occupy formal hierarchical positions of power? Surprisingly, it turned out that very often “they” were the “communists.” The following ethnographic moment, which was part of the Bulgarian prime minister’s visit to the plant, reveals some of the meanings attributed to this category.

The prime minister was wearing a suit without a tie, and his shirt was casually hanging loose. He was the leader of the center-leftpro-market Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), successor to the Communist Party. The plant was full of journalists following him on the organized tour he took of the shop floor along with the plant’s economic manager and director. He stopped by some machines and had some short chats with operators about how long they had been employed at the plant and about various production techniques. The image of the plant’s powerful men walking behind the prime minister was an extraordinary one, disrupting the normal routine, during which the directors were hardly ever seen by workers engaged in production. After walking around for some time, the prime minister addressed the cameras to declare that the government would financially support businesses and encourage investments in order for the private sector to overcome the “crisis.”

Then they, along with some shop floor managers and management-selected male and female workers, went for lunch at the factory’s canteen. The lunch setting was extraordinary for several reasons: For one, the directors had never had lunch with the workers at the self-service canteen before; they used to lunch in a separate, more expensively furnished room with opaque windows, table service and a different menu. In fact, they had originally arranged for the prime minister to lunch there, but he insisted on eating alongside the workers. He took a tray and chose a soup, two kebabs, and some bread, which he paid for at the till. It seemed like a typical worker’s lunch. The factory’s financial manager and director also queued with their trays, a moment of spectacle that became the brunt of workers’ laughter for many days after. Once the prime minister’s lunch companions were settled around the table, he asked the journalists to leave the canteen. According to workers who participated in the lunch, he was friendly with the employees and discussed various issues involved in labor legislation with them, though they mostly chatted about everyday things like fishing. That day, he was approachable, friendly, and tieless, sharing food and talking with the workers. The prime minister’s picture, shaking the hands of workers and consuming “the crisis kebabs in a factory’s canteen,” as many headlines put it, was featured extensively in the national media over the days that followed. The news provided some information on the plant as well; according to a national television report, Mladost was not planning any layoffs. However, cutting staff was an ongoing process. Overall, media representations focused on the prime minister’s chats with employees and reassurances that the government would work toward investment programs to assist the country’s workforce.

In private, many complained about the lies broadcasted on TV that nobody was being laid off. Here I focus on complaints regarding the organization of the meeting on behalf of the management, because they reveal an important aspect of the sentiment that “everything is the same.” The day after the prime minister’s visit, copies of newspapers were found in every common space of the factory. In the workers’ common room during a small break, eight to ten people were hunched over several newspapers opened to the pages referring to the previous day’s visit. People were laughing at him having kebabs at the table they used daily. After they returned to the machines, Boris, a fifty-five-year-old engineer, remained in the room: “Look at the communists!” he said, pointing at the pictures of the lunch. “Who knows why they arranged this meeting?” Since the party in power was the BSP, I initially thought that by “communists” he meant the prime minister. This was a usual attribution since it was the successor of the Communist Party. But Boris explained that, in one way or another, all of the lunch participants were in fact “communists.”

Let us have a look at the picture. There was a rumor at the factory that during socialist times the general manager had been a wel-connected party member. Workers claimed it had been he who made contact with those who bought the company. It was thus he who had the knowhow to both manage the factory and negotiate with the Bulgarian state. According to the workers, neither the foreign owner nor the foreign financial manager in Sofia could do that. Boris continued by echoing another view widely shared on the shop floor: that the general manager used the networks he had developed in the same position at another factory during communist times to improve his position after privatization. The fact that, twenty years after the collapse of socialism, he was still powerful made him a “communist.” According to Boris, the pictures of him standing next to the BSP prime minister only proved the point. Actually, the general manager did not hide his crucial role in privatization, because he reasoned that otherwise the factory would have closed down, as many others had. While Boris’s basic claim, that the manager had acquired his current position through previous contacts, seemed valid, his further claim that those who currently had power were “communists” was less convincing.

Boris then turned his attention to Yanko, a shop floor manager who was included at the prime minister’s lunch table. “He is a full red [communist] … he was in the army.” According to the life story I had collected from Yanko himself, he had indeed joined the army after he took the entrance exams and had worked there as an engineer for some years in the early 1990s. His parents had been workers at a small provincial factory and seemed to lack any significant political power that he could have potentially inherited. I could not see how his service in the army during the mid-1990s made him a “communist” and therefore comparable to the general manager. As far as I could tell, it was Yanko’s previous studies and his organizational skills acquired in the army that were valuable to the management and led him to a powerful position at the plant during the early 2000s.

Still referring to the picture from the lunch, Boris focused on Kyril, a sixty-year-old shop floor manager who had told me himself that he had been a Communist Party member during the socialist period. Kyril used to have a high-level managerial position in one of the sectors that closed down after privatization. He was then placed in a significantly less important position and hence experienced a degradation of status. He was still relatively powerful within the factory, but he embodied the predicament of those rendered powerless by privatization. It was not obvious to me how he could use previously held resources and power nowadays. Nevertheless, he was still labeled a “full red” or “red trash.” For Boris, even though Kyril’s current position was humble, his previous party membership was enough evidence of an obscure acquisition of power.

Among the lunch participants had also been some young workers from the lowest echelons of the factory’s hierarchy. Not only were they relatively powerless in the present, they were also too young to have had “full red” connections during socialism. How could Boris include them among the “communist” lunch participants? One was among the few unskilled workers who held a postsecondary-school degree and used to work as administrative staff at another company. During the late 1990s, however, the company closed down, and after a year of unemployment she took an unskilled job. Indeed, Yanko, her manager, had selected her to participate in the lunch as “the most educated worker.” According to Boris, her “communist” manager, the ex-military service engineer, chose her out of all her colleagues to join the lunch that day. Hence she was also a “communist.”

Still staring at the picture, Boris concluded: “Everything is the same, the communists have the power … whatever extra existed they cut. Every social benefit.8 Everything.” He then began listing all the bonuses and privileges employees used to enjoy and of which they had since been deprived. Although labor conditions had changed such that “everything social” was cut, all these “new” things were being introduced by “the same people,” that is, “communists.” Interestingly, in such discourses “communists” were often those who contributed to the plant’s transformation toward more flexible work relations within the broader neoliberal context.

In order to understand who the “full reds” were according to Boris and the majority of the plant workers who agreed with him, I returned to their personal stories that I had collected. Some of them had taken advantage of positions they held before privatization to advance their prospects at the plant. Others, like the ex-military engineer viewed as “communist” by Boris and others, were young enough to have benefited from their previous careers. Additionally, the category of “communist” also included people who had previously lost positions of higher status but had found a way to recapture some of that status. It was as if “communists” were not simply those who had retained power they acquired under socialism, but that literally anyone with a relatively good job in the postsocialist context might qualify. “Communist” seemed to have become a metonym for power holder. For Boris and many of his colleagues, the line between those who capitalized on previously accumulated resources and those who successfully navigated the job market after privatization is very thin. This kind of generalization relies on the notorious history of privatization projects in Bulgaria and elsewhere; managers from socialist times were involved in selling companies and making deals under the table or bought companies themselves and became owners (Müller 2007: 109; Konstantinov 2000: 140). Nevertheless, as my ethnography suggests, not all those in managerial positions were actively involved in the privatization process. Rather, their position was retrospectively seen as a strong sign—or even proof—of such activities.

Besides returning to the life stories of the “full reds,” I also went through the stories of those who attributed this status to others. Boris had been an engineer and the director of another plant, which closed down in the mid-1990s. Hardly a unique case, although he had attempted to become a party member in the 1980s, he did not succeed. During the late 1990s he started working at Mladost as an engineer and experienced his repositioning to this relatively poorly paid post as downward mobility and a loss of personal status. Some others who shared Boris’s view that all managers are “communists” had experienced similar losses in the context of privatization. Others had always held the lowest hierarchical positions and viewed themselves as being perennially under the control of “communists.” In fact, Ivan, a 58-year-old worker who has held a low-pay job at Mladost for more than twenty-five years, once told me that Boris himself was a “communist.”

“Everything is the same” seemed to summarize a narrative through which employees negotiated feelings of powerlessness and made sense of emergent power relations through familiar dichotomies of powerful versus powerless, “communist” versus “noncommunist.” This narrative was premised on the understanding that power has been inherited or accumulated from the communist past. Many employees, especially workers, would complain they could never get a promotion. Twenty years after the collapse of the socialist regime, those considering themselves dispossessed viewed most of those in power as “communists,” “reds,” or “red trash” who got ahead by mobilizing resources from the past times. The association between communism and power was so strong that even people with no demonstrable ties to the former socialist power structure were still described as “communists” and those who perpetuated “communism.” In this sense, the label was used to retrospectively explain why some have power and others do not under present conditions.

For the workers on the shop floor, “communism” connects the inequalities of the past to those of the present. For employees at higher levels, “communism” was commonly used to suggest the “laziness” and “ineffectiveness” of the workforce in the competitive postsocialist arena, thus justifying the current reforms. “Communism” becomes responsible for inequalities imposed by those from above or for malfunctioning of the factory, coming from those in the lowest levels of the hierarchy. While the former usage was mainly expressed by those in lower positions and the latter by those in higher positions, everyone understood and would situationally use both. Anticommunism therefore has become a prism through which employees negotiate their positioning and discuss relations of power at work.

“Communism” versus “in the old times”

Ongoing transformations of production and hierarchies at Mladost were often viewed through familiar idioms expressed with the designation “communist” and through comparisons with an idealized past as edno vreme (in the old times). On the one hand, “communist” and “communism” are often used pejoratively as explanations for the accumulation of power by others, which also implicates inequalities, the obscure acquisition of key positions, and even the implementation of neoliberal work policies. As a result, neoliberal and communist practices become conflated, and neoliberal production practices are described through the lens of “communism.” On the other hand, idealized images of communist times belong to the temporal frame edno vreme (in the old times), rather than “communism.” Therefore, “in the old times” becomes a frequent synonym for the communist times without actually naming it. Moreover, “in the old times” becomes another “keyword” (Williams 1983 [1976]) of the postsocialist era, which may be understood along with the other keyword of “communism.”

I view this avoidance of explicit reference to communist times for positive images, which is expressed as “in the old times,” as symptomatic of anticommunism. One wonders why there are currently no alternative idioms to conceptualize past communist and emerging capitalist relations at the point of production and beyond. My hypothesis is that Mladost employees make sense of emerging capitalist practices through postsocialist hegemonic idioms of condemnation used to comment on the failing of past communist production practices and politics. Such idioms, which are widely voiced by the media, as well as by academics and public intellectuals in Bulgaria, are also found on the shop floor. Such discourses often imply that a market economy would work better if “communists” were not still in power. It is in this anticommunist context, then, that this seemingly paradoxical formulation of workers’ criticisms of both past and present work conditions takes shape.

The narratives of “everything has changed” and “everything is the same” seem to be ways of making sense of multiple shifting postsocialist production practices and hierarchies. Doing research on the shop floor and comparing fieldwork data with past archives and workers’ oral histories made “everything has changed” a relatively easy phrase to explain, as the politics of production had significantly changed toward flexible relations, a fragmented workforce and precarious contracts. Narratives of continuity ran parallel to those of rupture. “Crisis” formed the basis for narratives of continuity related to a common experience of the constant degradation of living conditions for those in lower positions since the late years of the socialist period and in the early 1990s. The most prominent narrative of continuity was related to power that was perceived to be inherited from the communist past. Mistrust of those holding positions of power inside the plant, accusations of corruption and suspicions of anyone viewed as a power holder—and therefore a “communist”—were widespread on the production lines. Nevertheless, Mladost employees’ life stories suggest that it was not always clear who the “communist” power holders were and how they made use of previous resources for their current benefit. The term “communist” was inflated in daily conversations.

Significant changes in production processes, work practices, and workforce hierarchies in the context of capitalist privatization were often bitterly viewed as “new” difficult circumstances for employees at lower positions or those who experienced status degradation. These new circumstances, which one may describe as global processes of neoliberal capitalism, trigger various responses from the shop floor. Various past turning points, which have often been described as crises, have prepared workers for “one more crisis,” which was imagined by many as a “fake” one, merely produced to favor those in better positions. Insecurity and mistrust over wage labor, the plants’ micropolitics, and the state’s politics became more apparent during this period. Workers made sense of the transformations in their daily lives and defined what was “new” and what was the “same” through various periodizations, which transcended the socialist/postsocialist division. Nevertheless, a dominant rhetoric of anticommunism created another division; past positive labor conditions that belonged to the sphere of “in the old times” and current negative ones that were viewed as the result of “communist” acts inherited from the “communist period.” Employees, especially workers and those who experienced status degradation, often described transformations and abrupt changes as the result of inequalities produced during communism and reproduced twenty-five years later by the “red trash” inheritors of “communist” power, rather than as general inequalities associated with capitalist labor and production politics. It seems that the phrase “Stop Communism” seen around Sofia during the 2013–2014 protests includes both claims to break the cycle of inequality and the hierarchies of the past and to stop capitalist inequalities as well.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Alexandra Bakalaki, Detelina Tocheva, Aliki Angelidou, Georgi Medarov, and Charles Stewart for their feedback at different stages of this article, and my colleagues at the “Industry and Inequality in Eurasia” research group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. I extend my gratitude to Jonathan Parry for his suggestions and observations during his visit to my field site in Bulgaria in 2014. I also thank the two anonymous reviewers and Luisa Steur for their comments.

Notes
1

This article is based on fieldwork conducted in 2008–2009 at Mladost, a factory owned by the Bulgarian state since the early 1950s and bought in the mid-1990s by a multinational glass production group operating in Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, and Greece. I worked on the production line for six months and conducted eight further months of research with workers and managers inside the production space, as well as beyond the factory’s doors. I also collected life stories from a wide range of regular and contract workers, middle managers, and people from higher managerial positions and conducted archival research among Mladost’s files at the Bulgarian State Archives. I conducted follow-up fieldwork research in 2013–2014, in the context of my research at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, as member of the group “Industry and Inequality in Eurasia.” All names of companies and people in this article are pseudonyms.

2

The noun “crisis” is feminine in Bulgarian.

3

The often repeated phrases are всичко се промени (everything has changed), нищо вече не е както преди (nothing is like before anymore) and всичко се разсипа (everything has been destroyed).

4

This is reminiscent of Linhard’s (1985) study, in which migrant workers at a car factory were described as having been systematically classified as “unskilled” and hired with precarious employment status.

5

Consider, for example, the technician’s job: In 1973, the pay range varied from 110 to 155 leva, with the highest being 40 percent higher than the lowest salary. In 1988 it varied from 179 to 210 leva, with a 23 percent divergence. In 2008, the same post varied from 700 to 1200 leva, with a 71 percent divergence. (“Mladost Archive,” 691, 5, 15).

6

Bulgaria did not face severe economic decline during socialism as was the case in other countries (Braun 1983: 200–208). Bulgarian-Russian relationships were stronger in relation to all other Eastern European socialist countries (Kalinova and Baeva 2002: 176–177). Strong ties between the two countries included subsidized energy for Bulgaria at lower-than-market value and a secure Soviet market for Bulgarian products (Crampton 2006 [1997]: 206–208; Katsikas and Siani-Davies 2010: 11–12). Indeed, Mladost began to export to the Soviet market and a stable market relationship was maintained until the late 1980s.

7

Hyperinflation, which reached 311 percent in 1996, and the bankruptcy of one-third of the banks in Bulgaria resulted in a severe economic crisis during 1996–1997 (Dimitrov 2001: 85).

8

He only said “social” (Социални) but he meant social benefits, Социални придобивки. These include health and social insurance benefits as well as extra payment for food during laboring hours, for transportation to work and holiday vouchers.

References

  • Angelidou, Aliki, and Dimitra Koft i. 2013. Greek (ad)ventures in Sofia: Elite mobility and new cultural hierarchies at the margins of Europe. In Ger Duijzings, ed., Global villages: Rural and urban transformations in contemporary Bulgaria, pp. 191207. London: Anthem.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Braun, Aurel. 1983. Small-state security in the Balkans. London: MacMillan.

  • Crampton, Richard. 2006 [1997]. A concise history of Bulgaria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Dimitrov, Vesselin. 2001. Bulgaria: The uneven transition. London: Routledge.

  • Dimitrova, Ina. 2010. How we raised a monster: Constructing the image of socialism during the post-socialist period in Bulgaria. History of Communism in Europe 1(1): 153165.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dunn, Elizabeth. 2004. Privatizing Poland: Baby food, big business, and the remaking of Labor. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

  • Hann, Chris, and Keith Hart. 2011. Economic anthropology. Cambridge: Polity.

  • Humphrey, Caroline. 1995. Introduction. In David Anderson and Frances Pine, eds., Surviving the transition: Development concerns in the post-socialist world, pp. 112. Cambridge: Cambridge Department of Social Anthropology.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jung, Yuson. 2009. From canned food to canny consumers: Cultural competence in the age of mechanical production. In Melissa Caldwell, ed., Food and everyday life in postsocialist Europe, pp. 2956. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kalb, Don. 2009. Conversations with a Polish populist: Tracing hidden histories of globalization, class, and dispossession in postsocialism (and beyond). American Ethnologist 36(2): 207223.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kalb, Don. 2011. Introduction. Headlines of nation, subtexts of class: Working-class populism and the return of the repressed in neoliberal Europe. In Don Kalb and Gabor Halmai, eds., Headlines of nation, subtexts of class: Working-class populism and the return of the repressed in neoliberal Europe, pp. 136. New York: Berghahn.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kalb, Don, and Gabor Halmai, eds. Headlines of nation, subtexts of class: Working-class populism and the return of the repressed in neoliberal Europe. New York: Berghahn.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kalinova, Evgeniia, and Iskra Baeva. 2002. Bulgarskite prekhodi, 1939–2002 (Bulgarian transitions, 19392002). Sofia: Paradigma.

  • Kaneff, Deema. 1998. Un jour au marché : Les modes d’échange dans la Bulgarie rurale (A day at the market : Modes of exchange in rural Bulgaria). Ethnologie Francaise 28(4): 532539.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kaneff, Deema. 2002. Work, identity, and rural-urban relations. In Pamela Leonard and Deema Kaneff, eds., Post-socialist peasant? Rural and urban constructions of identity in Eastern Europe, East Asia, and the former Soviet Union, pp. 180199. New York: Palgrave.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Katsikas, Stefanos, and Peter Siani-Davies. 2010. The Europeanization of Bulgarian society: A long-lasting political project. In Stefanos Katsikas, ed., Bulgaria and Europe: Shift ing identities, pp. 122. London: Anthem.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Konstantinov, Yulian. 2000. Survival strategies in post-1989 Bulgaria. In Kenneth McRobbie and Kari Polanyi-Levitt, eds., Karl Polanyi in Vienna: The contemporary significance of the great transformation, pp. 132146. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Koselleck, Reinhart. 2006. Crisis. Journal of the History of Ideas 67(2): 357400.

  • Linhard, Robert. 1985. Learning the assembly line. In Craig Littler, ed., The experience of work, pp. 117127. London: Gower.

  • Mollona, Massimiliano. 2009. Made in Sheffield: An ethnography of industrial work and politics. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

  • Müller, Birgit. 2004. Productivity and the person: From socialist competition to capitalist mission in Eastern Europe. In Angela Procoli, ed., Workers and narratives of survival in Europe: The management of precariousness at the end of the twentieth century. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Müller, Birgit. 2007. Disenchantment with market economics: East Germans and Western Capitalism. New York: Berghahn.

  • Narotzky, Susana, and Gavin Smith. 2006. Immediate struggles: People, power, and place in rural Spain. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ngai, Pun. 2005. Made in China: Women factory workers in a global workplace. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Parry, Jonathan. 2013. Company and contract labour in a central Indian steel plant. Economy and society 42(3): 348374.

  • Pine, Frances. 2001. Retreat to household? Gendered domains in postsocialist Poland. In Chris Hann, ed., Postsocialism: Ideals, ideologies, and local practices, pp. 94113. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Poenaru, Florin. 2013. Contesting illusions: History and intellectual class struggle in post-communist Romania. PhD diss., Central European University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Portelli, Alessandro. 1997. The battle of Valle Giulia: Oral history and the art of dialogue. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

  • Roitman, Janet. 2014. Anti-crisis. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Shevchenko, Olga. 2009. Crisis and the everyday in postsocialist Moscow. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  • Spyridakis, Manos. 2013. The liminal worker: An ethnography of work, unemployment, and precariousness in contemporary Greece. Aldershot: Ashgate.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smollett, Eleanor. 1989. The economy of jars: Kindred relationships in Bulgaria—an exploration. Ethnologia Europaea 18: 125140.

  • Thompson, Paul. 1988. Playing at being skilled men: Factory culture and pride in work skills among Coventry car workers. Social History 13(1): 4569.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Topalova, Velina, and Todor Hristov. 2010. Social inequalities in Bulgaria. In Heinrich Best and Agnieska Wenniger, eds., Landmark 1989: Central and Eastern European societies twenty years aft er the system change, pp. 159175. Berlin: LIT Verlag.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Toranska, Teresa. 1987. “Them”: Stalin’s Polish puppets. New York: Perennial Library.

  • Vodopivec, Nina. 2010. Textile workers in Slovenia: From nimble fingers to tired bodies. Anthropology of East Europe Review 28(1): 165183.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Williams, Raymond. 1983 [1976]. Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Archival sources

“Mladost Archive.” Sofi a Archives, Bulgarian State Archives.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

Contributor Notes

Dimitra Kofti is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. Her main research interests are political, economic, and historical anthropology and filmmaking. E-mail: dimitra.kofti@yahoo.com

Focaal

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • View in gallery

    At a metro station in Sofia, November 2013. (Author’s photo)

  • Angelidou, Aliki, and Dimitra Koft i. 2013. Greek (ad)ventures in Sofia: Elite mobility and new cultural hierarchies at the margins of Europe. In Ger Duijzings, ed., Global villages: Rural and urban transformations in contemporary Bulgaria, pp. 191207. London: Anthem.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Braun, Aurel. 1983. Small-state security in the Balkans. London: MacMillan.

  • Crampton, Richard. 2006 [1997]. A concise history of Bulgaria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Dimitrov, Vesselin. 2001. Bulgaria: The uneven transition. London: Routledge.

  • Dimitrova, Ina. 2010. How we raised a monster: Constructing the image of socialism during the post-socialist period in Bulgaria. History of Communism in Europe 1(1): 153165.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dunn, Elizabeth. 2004. Privatizing Poland: Baby food, big business, and the remaking of Labor. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

  • Hann, Chris, and Keith Hart. 2011. Economic anthropology. Cambridge: Polity.

  • Humphrey, Caroline. 1995. Introduction. In David Anderson and Frances Pine, eds., Surviving the transition: Development concerns in the post-socialist world, pp. 112. Cambridge: Cambridge Department of Social Anthropology.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jung, Yuson. 2009. From canned food to canny consumers: Cultural competence in the age of mechanical production. In Melissa Caldwell, ed., Food and everyday life in postsocialist Europe, pp. 2956. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kalb, Don. 2009. Conversations with a Polish populist: Tracing hidden histories of globalization, class, and dispossession in postsocialism (and beyond). American Ethnologist 36(2): 207223.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kalb, Don. 2011. Introduction. Headlines of nation, subtexts of class: Working-class populism and the return of the repressed in neoliberal Europe. In Don Kalb and Gabor Halmai, eds., Headlines of nation, subtexts of class: Working-class populism and the return of the repressed in neoliberal Europe, pp. 136. New York: Berghahn.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kalb, Don, and Gabor Halmai, eds. Headlines of nation, subtexts of class: Working-class populism and the return of the repressed in neoliberal Europe. New York: Berghahn.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kalinova, Evgeniia, and Iskra Baeva. 2002. Bulgarskite prekhodi, 1939–2002 (Bulgarian transitions, 19392002). Sofia: Paradigma.

  • Kaneff, Deema. 1998. Un jour au marché : Les modes d’échange dans la Bulgarie rurale (A day at the market : Modes of exchange in rural Bulgaria). Ethnologie Francaise 28(4): 532539.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kaneff, Deema. 2002. Work, identity, and rural-urban relations. In Pamela Leonard and Deema Kaneff, eds., Post-socialist peasant? Rural and urban constructions of identity in Eastern Europe, East Asia, and the former Soviet Union, pp. 180199. New York: Palgrave.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Katsikas, Stefanos, and Peter Siani-Davies. 2010. The Europeanization of Bulgarian society: A long-lasting political project. In Stefanos Katsikas, ed., Bulgaria and Europe: Shift ing identities, pp. 122. London: Anthem.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Konstantinov, Yulian. 2000. Survival strategies in post-1989 Bulgaria. In Kenneth McRobbie and Kari Polanyi-Levitt, eds., Karl Polanyi in Vienna: The contemporary significance of the great transformation, pp. 132146. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Koselleck, Reinhart. 2006. Crisis. Journal of the History of Ideas 67(2): 357400.

  • Linhard, Robert. 1985. Learning the assembly line. In Craig Littler, ed., The experience of work, pp. 117127. London: Gower.

  • Mollona, Massimiliano. 2009. Made in Sheffield: An ethnography of industrial work and politics. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

  • Müller, Birgit. 2004. Productivity and the person: From socialist competition to capitalist mission in Eastern Europe. In Angela Procoli, ed., Workers and narratives of survival in Europe: The management of precariousness at the end of the twentieth century. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Müller, Birgit. 2007. Disenchantment with market economics: East Germans and Western Capitalism. New York: Berghahn.

  • Narotzky, Susana, and Gavin Smith. 2006. Immediate struggles: People, power, and place in rural Spain. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ngai, Pun. 2005. Made in China: Women factory workers in a global workplace. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Parry, Jonathan. 2013. Company and contract labour in a central Indian steel plant. Economy and society 42(3): 348374.

  • Pine, Frances. 2001. Retreat to household? Gendered domains in postsocialist Poland. In Chris Hann, ed., Postsocialism: Ideals, ideologies, and local practices, pp. 94113. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Poenaru, Florin. 2013. Contesting illusions: History and intellectual class struggle in post-communist Romania. PhD diss., Central European University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Portelli, Alessandro. 1997. The battle of Valle Giulia: Oral history and the art of dialogue. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

  • Roitman, Janet. 2014. Anti-crisis. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Shevchenko, Olga. 2009. Crisis and the everyday in postsocialist Moscow. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  • Spyridakis, Manos. 2013. The liminal worker: An ethnography of work, unemployment, and precariousness in contemporary Greece. Aldershot: Ashgate.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smollett, Eleanor. 1989. The economy of jars: Kindred relationships in Bulgaria—an exploration. Ethnologia Europaea 18: 125140.

  • Thompson, Paul. 1988. Playing at being skilled men: Factory culture and pride in work skills among Coventry car workers. Social History 13(1): 4569.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Topalova, Velina, and Todor Hristov. 2010. Social inequalities in Bulgaria. In Heinrich Best and Agnieska Wenniger, eds., Landmark 1989: Central and Eastern European societies twenty years aft er the system change, pp. 159175. Berlin: LIT Verlag.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Toranska, Teresa. 1987. “Them”: Stalin’s Polish puppets. New York: Perennial Library.

  • Vodopivec, Nina. 2010. Textile workers in Slovenia: From nimble fingers to tired bodies. Anthropology of East Europe Review 28(1): 165183.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Williams, Raymond. 1983 [1976]. Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 55 55 3
PDF Downloads 9 9 1