Keeping Time in Bulgaria: Socialism and Post-socialism

Watching change from afar

I left Bulgaria in the year 2000, in order to pursue my graduate studies in the US. Since then, I have been able to go back on a regular basis. So that, even if I try to keep up with news from a place I still consider and call home, my perspective on it is inevitably that of an outsider, of a person who does not fully belong, or finds himself slightly disoriented.
This, in itself, is not necessary a disadvantage, however. As with meeting old friends you have not seen for long, where the gradual changes in the face or gait impress themselves so much stronger, so also the infrequent snapshots I get of Bulgaria make me sensitive to how vast the changes have been. Many of those changes have to do with time: how it is lived, experienced, comprehended or not. For what has happened in (not only) Bulgaria the past fifteen to twenty years have been immense transformations that extend well beyond the economic or the political. They have to do with temporality as well.
Bulgarian society under socialism had its own rigid temporal structures. Here, time, which in official ideology was portrayed as progressively linear, a sure envelope of the forward march of communism, was effectively lived in a quasi-cyclical mode. Not unlike a Foucauldian disciplinary paradigm, one experienced time as organized in a series of successive cycles: first kindergarten and school, then the military (if male), then university, followed by a guaranteed workplace to secure one’s marriage and the raising of children, on the slow but certain road to retirement. A lot of things happened in between, yet the general pattern had but few exceptions. Time was a transcendental horizon defining yet resistant to all human activity: you lived it in ways that were easily discernible in the lives of others.

No room for past or future

That the general model had its local specifications did not change much: as in Bulgaria, where a long historical tradition and forms of ideological interpellation had developed an always-waiting subjective attitude, as a defense mechanism in the face of a vastly impersonal bureaucratic machine. Time was something that happened to one, and not something one could actively engage with or transform. To quip on a famous saying by a popular Bulgarian revolutionary from the late nineteenth century: we were in Time, yet Time was not in us.
Today’s post-socialist world, by contrast, looks vastly different. Along with transformations of not only the car park but also of the culture of driving, of not only the types of popular music but of the way they affect sensibilities and patterns of socializing among the young, and of not only the real estate business but also the emergence of a new entrepreneurial culture, there is a widening gap between the predictable socialist past and the frenzied euphoria of post-socialism. These changes do not leave time “untouched” either. As opposed to the cyclical present of socialism, which romanticized the past and secured the future, what we experience today is a contracted present which leaves no room for either past or future.
It makes a lot of sense to relate those changes to the ushering in of capitalism in the country, post-1989. The immense contraction of the present, alongside with the obliteration of the past and the radical openness of the future, neatly correspond to not only the lightning turnover speed of contemporary financial capital, which for some theorists overcodes all other forms of capitalization today, but also to the collapse of scenarios alternative to the capitalist dystopia. Indeed, why should either past or future matter when the sole criterion is that of productivity and the only demand that of increased profits? For capital, only here and now matters; memory, history or long-term well-being are just useless externalities on the job. It could only be expected that all this breeds not only an infantile media culture enamored by eternal youth and happiness, but also a collectivization of cynicism and opportunism, along with seemingly unprovoked acts of violence by those on the margins of society.
Scrutinizing the transformation

Yet to say only this would do injustice to the complexity of the situation. The immense transformations that Bulgaria, along with so many other places, has been going through, have not been only negative, or a mere artifact of capitalist accumulation. It seems to me that they are much more complex than that. The contraction of the present, and its concomitant culture of entrepreneurship and becoming self-responsible, serve capitalist purposes all too well, but extend beyond them also. They usher in new ways of acting, sensing, relating, along with, of course, a new, and more active, experience of time.
Let me offer here two brief examples, which embody these new and unexpected processes. The first has to do with a poll conducted this past summer, which, among other questions, asked its respondents about their attitude toward living in Bulgaria. Quite unexpectedly, most of the young people polled expressed their preference to live in Bulgaria, rather than in any other place in Western Europe or the USA. In strong contrast to their parents or even grandparents, who for decades had scorned living “at home” and had dreamed of the West, young Bulgarians thought their lives were “good enough”, and did not need to measure up to a higher Western standard. Their present, while still detached from a sense of history and projecting onto a rather abstract future, looked sufficient to itself, and in no way worse than that of regular “white folks” out there in the West.

What’s in a strike?

Yet even more interesting was a landmark political event from the fall of the same year, where, in the midst of heavy debates and with much hesitancy, Bulgarian high school teachers went on a nation-wide strike. Some of the worst paid, least political and most ridiculed of all state workers, not only did they stop teaching for close to a month, but they also drew a lot of popular support, forced the government to engage and even interrupted the work of the National Assembly for awhile. And while the immediate success of the strike was modest, the sense of empowerment the teachers experienced, the immense carnivalesque creativity they exhibited in public, and the anxiety they produced in the ruling elites, made a strong promise that new forms of politicization, collective yet ideologically fluid, might yet be in store.
Resisting the tyranny of the present

I mention these two cases as I find them symptomatic of more profound transformations in Bulgarian society. They entail not only the advent of modes of self-valorization, of self-affirmation often at odds with traditional value systems (where the West is the yardstick of all), but also of new forms of collective resistance no longer bound to the old ideological dogma. Inevitably, they entail a different ‘use’ of time as well.

Capitalism indeed contracts the present, while making the past disappear and the future insignificant. Yet the above two examples, alongside many others, imply that it inadvertently opens up alternatives as well. Bulgarian adolescents preferring to “live at home” do so out of an intuitive sense that the present is not only not contracted, but can be expanded as well, both along the axes of pleasure and of work. The teachers who organized the strike yet refuse to be co-opted by either the government or the opposition discover the joys and ethos of collective resistance, albeit in terms rather different from those of vulgarized Marxism. Both of them experience and make room for different temporalities, for alternative experiences of time than those of production and instant turnover. And both imply (even if no more than imply) that some not so bright skies might be in store for Bulgaria’s capitalist future.
Of course, only ‘time’ will show if those promises will materialize.

Nikolay is a Bulgarian national, currently studying philosophy at Binghamton University, USA.

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