With the constant, confusing, and often misinformed media noise around Russia, you would be forgiven for believing a number of unhelpfully distorting half-truths: that Russia has been a pariah state for a while (connected to sanctions after the occupation of Crimea and intervention in East Ukraine); that Russia is on a kind of lockdown with no outlet for protests and careful management of dissent by the state; or that Putin is so popular that protests are pointless or restricted to a small educated minority. Lastly, you might get the impression that oil money continues to keep the Russians reasonably quiescent—after all, the government spent heavily on social programs before and after the initial shocks associated with the global financial crisis.
According to Richard Seymour (2015), current European austerity politics ought to be regarded not as a temporary period of economic rationalization during crisis but rather as a shift toward a new political economic paradigm. This new paradigm is to be driven by a rhetorical commitment to “worker flexibility” and “labour market competitiveness”—both euphemisms for a long-term decline in the value of European salaries and an overall context of bottom-to-top economic redistribution. A further defining aspect of austerity in Europe is the condition of financialization, meaning that mantras of “living within our means” typically define the parameters of sensible governance yet often take the form of shifting public debt onto private households, as capital accumulation becomes increasingly driven by banks leveraging household debt to fund trading on financial markets (see Lapavistas and Flassbeck 2015).
Vers un Automne Érable?1
Whenever threatened, the first thing power restricts is the ability to linger or assemble in the street.
In September of 2014, I arrived in Montréal to study the students’ strike that had erupted throughout the province of Québec three years earlier. I was particularly interested in learning more about the evolution of the movement itself and the networks it had forged with related movements: the Chilean student protests, Occupy Wall Street, and 15M.
“The glass will overflow”
Written at the entrance of a factory shop floor in Pernik, an industrial Bulgarian town close to the capital, this slogan predicted an uprising. According to workers’ testimonies, the slogan had been written before the February 2013 Bulgarian protests. Nevertheless, the glass did not overflow in the plant during 2013, as it did not overflow in the early 2000s, when the privatization process brought mass layoffs and pay cuts. Since 2013, in different parts of the country, workers went on strike because they were long-term unpaid. However, workers in Sofia and Pernik, who were low-paid but regularly, and with whom I conducted fieldwork in different periods since 20071, did not participate in the urban protests in 2013 and 2014 that contributed to the fall of two successive governments (February 2013 and July 2014) and happened during a period of economic destabilization, with the near collapse of a bank. In this presentation, I explore reasons and mechanisms of workers’ nonparticipation of the ongoing Bulgarian protests. There is a methodological trap here: an ethnography that searches for the lack of an action already presupposes that the ethnographer would anticipate an action. Nevertheless, Bulgarian workers also comment on the lack of their political participation and give various reasons for this. I take their concerns seriously, and I am attempting to think with them and through their daily talks as well as through their practices at work and at home.