As the European Union develops its strategy for a Green Deal that would prepare its members for a transition to a more sustainable economy, some key assumptions and mechanisms for economic development are bound to repeat and exacerbate the damages from past transitions. Most importantly, these mechanisms deepen a course of social transformation the beginning of which was set through the 1989 Transition to free market capitalism in the East.
The logics of Transition with a capital T
The notion of transition established in the aftermath of 1989 is still a powerful motor of imaginaries that determine the limits of political action. Srećko Horvat and Igor Štiks talk about “the desert of transition” – the notion of transition as a purgatory that has to be endured and suffered through in order to get to the other side, a story similar to the wandering of Moses in the desert and the suspended temporalities of cleansing and perish on the journey to the “promised land” of capitalist prosperity.
Conceived thus, Transition works not just as a series of social, political, and economic transformations but also as a discursive tool that shapes and limits ideas of justice in the post-socialist world by mobilizing the ghost of “zombie socialism” as a scarecrow and explanatory framework for any failures of the new regime. Moreover, the narrative of Transition negates the transiency of all instances of political consensus, shared horizons, and political programs and hence, last but not least, blocks out the notion of “transitions without a telos” where struggle, renegotiation, and contestation are still possible.
In short, Transition works through erasure, denial, and the tyranny of an idealized model, which are exercised both through discursive power and through the mechanisms used to transform and establish new institutions, infrastructures, and routes of the constitutive flows of socio-economic spaces – money, commodity, people and, increasingly, data.
It is still commonplace in political discourse to regard the socialist period as a stagnant and monolithic temporality dominated by deficits, shortages, and totalitarian power. This perception has largely justified the need for Transition (with a capital ‘t’) – a policy framework in which the coupling of liberal democracy with neoliberal capitalism is considered quasi-sacred and thus remains unquestioned.
Yet, the socialist period was a changing and self-reinventing time that, towards its end, had introduced many of the principles that the capitalist transition claimed to promise: increased trade and collaboration with non-socialist countries, nascent forms of private property and managerial governance, a growing opportunity for political pluralism and some possibilities for critique of the regime. Towards its end, socialism in Bulgaria was slowly taking a shape that resembled a vision of “capitalism with a human face” where the state was trying to navigate economic reforms with protection of the social rights for workers.
Ecological movements were an important part of this nascent internal critique of the regime, together with artistic critiques of alienation in industrial societies and denunciation of power inequalities. The ruptures of 1989 not only dismantled the institutions and infrastructures sustaining social security and communality, they also interrupted the growth of such internal critique that was evoked the ideological principles of communism in striving for social, ecological and political justice.
The ecocide legacy of the Transition
While the socialist regime in Eastern Europe was a modernist project for large-scale industrialization with the associated effects of land appropriation, extraction, and pollution there is an increasing awareness that it had incorporated environmentalist action on multiple levels. Countries in the Eastern Bloc have developed customs of everyday conservationism and environmental protection supported through mass education and environmentalist brigades, practices that differ from the model of Western capitalist environmentalism. Not to mention the ethos of recycle, reuse and repair that was prevalent in the post-socialist world and then almost completely erased by the introduction of single-use consumerism after 1989.
The 1980s also gave rise to multiple homegrown environmentalist movements around the Eastern Bloc that were mounting important critique about the cost of industrialisation and slowly building the grounds for political pluralism. In Bulgaria, the movement Ekoglasnost (making use of Mikhail Gorbachov’s term for “political openness and pluralism”) formed as a result of environmentalist protest and was seen as one of the first political opposition parties. 17 of its members were elected to the first post-communist parliament, which accounted for 4% of the elected officials, a number that has not since been reached by a green party in the country. Barbara Jancar‐Webster remarks that the initial presence of environmentalist movements in post-socialist parliaments after 1989 declined steadily when dire poverty lead people to focus on questions of mere survival and narrowed the scope of political concerns.
We can also read this gradual fading of environmental concerns in the programmatic texts of the transition in Bulgaria. For example, the Action Plan for Bulgaria commissioned by the Bulgaria’s government and developed by a team of US economists led by Ronald Utt and Richard Rahn bluntly stated that environmental concerns will have to be put on hold for a few years and people in Bulgaria will have to endure and postpone their desire for environmental justice for when the country has finally achieved capitalist economy. Their advice was to abandon ideas of environmental commons and instead ground environmental protection policies in the principles of private property. This plan, which was largely ignored in its details by the government, nevertheless set the tone for the “shock therapy”-transition that combined mass privatization, juridical reforms, free market mechanisms, and a decline in guaranteed social rights.
Subsequent reports on the condition of environmental protection in the country register a worrying tendency. Industrial pollution had largely declined due to the annihilation of state enterprises and the mass closure of factories. However, new forms of environmental pollution and destruction were taking shape along the lines of the new principles of post-socialist economies – primitive accumulation and abject poverty. Natural resources and protected land were being seized in an accelerated process of enclosures of the commons, sanctioned by the imperative to establish private property and support entrepreneurship. Moreover, a new form of poverty driven pollution was contributing to low air quality in the country – old cars were one of the culprits but even more concerning was the regression to wood stoves used for heating by the majority of people who could not afford to pay the bills for electricity or centralized heating.
In the late 2000s new environmental movements started taking a stance against the enclosure of land and the destruction of natural habitats, yet the questions of poverty and environmental policy remained detached from each other. The new context of thinking about environmental justice, predicated on the primacy of private property and the imperative for profit and free market competition proved incapable of providing the mechanisms for an intervention. The most used strategy by the Greens in Bulgaria – sanctions by the European Commission – have the effect of socializing losses while not threatening private gains.
The European Green Deal
This context of the Transition that has shaped the post-socialist space and Europe as a whole situates the European Green Deal in relation to three important questions. What discourses are being erased and silenced through the narrative of a green transition? What mechanisms are being used? And what are the effects of layered Transitions that each generate its own horizon of idealized and reductive futurity?
In the past couple of months the discourse of “green” transition has disturbingly aligned itself with past Cold War dichotomies and has managed to once again construe the image of (neo)liberal capitalism as the only viable option for our future, an ideological narrative that brazenly borrows from the myth of the Transition. On a geopolitical plane it has once again juxtaposed the progressive West to the authoritarian and regressive East. While the REPowerEU plan links energy transition to geopolitical positioning against Putin’s Russia, there are indications that the plan includes too many provisions and exclusions that would allow oil and gas giants in the EU to still import Russian fossil fuel.
At the same time, the programme for a “green” transition continues to draw on the pillars of free market development introduced through the structures of international aid, infrastructure grants, and fantasies of upskilling labor. The key mechanism for implementing the Green Deal transition remains the EU’s Cohesion Fund, a scheme for the redistribution of capital that has helped foster dependencies between political and economic power in post-socialist countries like Bulgaria. The Cohesion Fund, which is seen as instrumental for the implementation of a just transition, sets the ideological and political apparatus for transforming the territorial structure of the European Union into different categories of regional units. The poorest units are reinterpreted as vehicles for the circulation of capital through policies privileging foreign direct investment, tax cuts, and redistributing public funds to private companies. This logic of development through private capital was established as the core element of Transition in Eastern Europe and, ironically, the mechanisms outlined in the just transition plan have already been put in practice and have consistently failed in the region.
Ukraine, clean tech, and the violence of outsourcing
What kind of landscapes do these mechanisms produce? One of the less talked about consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the reshuffling of the market for digital services in the East of Europe – an industry that is consistently hailed as an essential part of the Green Deal.
Ukraine has consistently been cast among the top outsourcing destinations in the region and in the whole of Europe with its cheap labor and a wide pool of educated IT specialists. Big companies like SAP, EPAM and Grammarly are struggling to pull out of the country and retain their cheap workforce in Eastern Europe. Ukraine is representative of a trend across the post-socialist region where a new tech industry has grown out of outsourcing – an economic activity that is simultaneously affirming and challenging the postulates of transitional mechanisms.
Outsourcing, which has been hailed as a vehicle of foreign direct investment in Eastern Europe, creates uneasy dependencies between their low wages relative to the rest of Europe and the local aspirations for economic progress. Kalindi Vora argues that outsourcing is, at its core, an extractivist endeavor that turns certain populations into a source of vital energy for others, extracting “from areas of life depletion to areas of life enrichment.”
These populations in the Third World and, increasingly, in the Second World, are seen as providing support, maintenance, and care labor for both customers and production facilities in the Global North.
Upskilling: a vehicle for the “green” transition
Outsourcing produces even within the context of national economies new geographies of life depletion and extreme income inequalities. In 2022 the median salary in Bulgaria’s IT sector, an industry that had grown quickly on the back on outsourcing projects and enterprises, is around 2500 euro. In contrast, the minimum monthly wage is 350 euro and, according to one of the main trade unions, 2/3 of workers receive below the country median salary which is still three times lower that the median wage in IT.
Still, this increasing inequality is obscured behind the omnipresent rhetoric of human capital and high skilled labor in the European Green Deal as well as in national economic policies. The EU sees upskilling as a vehicle for the “green” transition – a vehicle that promises an unclear future for the ones whose jobs are deemed low skilled and which positions the Union in a new wave of extractivist politics: one that leans heavily on the extraction of biocapital from its peripheries and its outside. The ambition to attract migrants from so-called “third countries” to fill in high skilled jobs is clear in the programs of the EU and has been adopted by its members.
In the first week of Russia’s Ukraine invasion the Bulgarian Association of Software Companies quickly offered assistance for software engineers leaving Ukraine in an attempt to attract skilled labor to the country. Driven by the calculative logic of the political discourse of human capital, people in Ukraine, even in the context of war horror and cross-border solidarities, were seen through the lens of desirable skills. This logic reproduces the geographical inequalities of the European Union within the post-socialist space where the convergence of visa and labor regimes determined by the membership in the Union lead to multiple heterogeneous possibilities for the extraction and depletion of biocapital.
Reproducing or countering inequalities?
While the EU strategy for extracting skilled labor from third countries is explicitly clear, what remains unclear is the fate of low skilled workers. The strategy of the Union consistently promises an increase in the share of skilled jobs in various industries. But the existing practices of the Union suggest that its developmental policies privilege a capital-centric logic that deepens rifts between winners and losers. These policies have already nurtured and exploited the inequalities between East and West through the figure of a highly mobile low skilled labor force from the post-socialist space.
There are already anxieties about the geopolitical implications of the Green Deal with regards to trade and energy, but the self-centeredness of this pan-EU strategy extends beyond fuel and trade. It exploits rather than attempting to mend the injustices and inequalities produced through the politico-economic projects of the East-European Transition and global colonialism. The ambition to import skilled labor from the outside and consistently marginalize low-skilled workers is extractivist in its logic of absorbing productive labor power and outsourcing the cost and toil of its social reproduction to social and geographic peripheries.
Envisioning a shared sustainable future, we will need to search for alternative pasts and models that offer other frameworks of relating to issues of environmental justice, ones that link together environmentalism, social reproduction, and popular sovereignty against the interests of extractivist capitalist policies. This is where the post-socialist experience provides important lessons – not just ones that are critical of the narrative of Transition but also examples of practices of popular environmentalism and a compendium of destitute spaces and broken lives that will need to be cared for and mended on the path to any meaningful transition to a better future.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Tsvetelina Hristova is postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University and fellow at the Centre for Advanced Internet Studies, Bochum. Her current research focuses on rethinking of automation through its relationship to visualisation and visual tools, and how this relationship is transformed in the context of platform capitalism.