Liberalisation or Democratisation of Urban Activism
by Georgi Medarov
In this article, I look at the limitations of wide-spread interpretative frameworks which were imposed on urban activism in Bulgaria after 1989. These frameworks inherit much of the liberal political imagination about the ‘transition period’, the ‘construction of civil society’ and the ‘return to Europe’ of the 1990s.
A central stake of the perspective presented here which is based on the increasing number of critical research on post-socialist liberalism in Bulgaria, is that not every activist initiative seeking to speak in the name of ‘civil society’ is necessarily democratic. The term ‘civil society’ has an immense symbolic charge in media and public institutions in the post-socialist period, and its effective deployment can exert a decisive political influence. Thus, it is commonly utilised by various groups and for controversial aims. There also exist many anti-democratic, demophobic and elitist uses articulated by ‘civil society’ in terms of struggles against ‘populism’, ‘mass taste’ etc.
This, however, is not to say that demophobia cannot indeed be truly representative of ‘civil society’. This is so, because there is no ‘authentic’ civil society beyond the rhetorical and hegemonic struggles and the diverging attempts to monopolise the appropriation of the term. Of course, the various groups struggling over the monopoly of the representation of ‘civil society’ are not equal – elites who have a privileged access to the public sphere (i.e. in the media) exert a stronger influence.
The debate about the post-1989 city and the neoliberal conservative revolution
Public debates on urban development in Bulgaria are often construed around hegemonic liberal ideologemes, thus reducing all social conflicts to an opposition between the remnants of the past and the forces of the future. The forces of the market future are conceived as civil, innovative and entrepreneurial, pro-European, reformist, youthful, liberal, open and, above all, ‘value’- creating (where ‘value’ is also seen as an ‘aesthetic’ characterisation). ‘Socialist anachronisms’, on the other hand, are considered to be work behind the scenes, to be totalitarian, opaque, conservative and, in general, linked to ineffective and bureaucratic state institutions.
Similarly simplistic oppositions are typical not only for Eastern Europe. Pierre Bourdieu calls neoliberalism a conservative revolution through which the right lives parasitically off socialist terms (such as reform) and turns them around. In his account, it is a revolution ‘that restores the past but presents itself as progressive’, thus presenting social struggles as regressive forces of the past: as ‘old-fashioned, ‘has-beens’, ‘throwbacks’’. 
The peculiarity of Eastern Europe lies in the fact that these ideological clichés are coupled with a (self)colonisation of political imagination.  The ‘transition’ to liberal governance after 1989 is seen as a ‘return to Europe’: a radical negation of the past and restoration of pre-socialist capitalist relations, framed also as a geopolitical fantasy of ‘westernisation’ and ‘Europeanisation’. Two key phantasms, presenting Eastern Europe as a perversion, are thereby produced.
Firstly, the socialist past is thought of as a deviation from a ‘natural’ historical course. This deviation has engendered ‘distorted’ forms of consciousness (‘communist thinking’) which – together with other communist heritage – are to be uprooted. Secondly, ‘geography’ (imagined as capable of generating social attitudes, e.g. ‘Balkan mentality’) is also conceived as a deviation from the West. The latter is presented as a natural norm which needs to be reached, while one’s own (Eastern) position is to be eradicated. Some Bulgarian liberal intellectuals go as far as to claim that any talk of a dignity of one’s own inevitably produces nationalist violence.
The city and the village in the liberal symbolic geography
The perspective presented here constitutes a useful starting point for a critical interpretation of the images of the ‘city’ and the ‘village’ in the liberal anti-communist symbolic universe in Bulgaria after 1989. There are multiple converging points between the longed-for ‘European civil society’ and the city. The socialist modernisation and urbanisation get commonly written off as unnatural and as having filled pre-socialist ‘bourgeois’ towns with ‘peasants’. ‘Peasants’, and the more broadly conceived symbolic presence of the village in the city, are imagined as essentially anti-modern. Being a city resident (which is often even equated with citizenship) is here not a question of simple residency, but of an inherited (city) origin which runs by line of ‘blood’. This tendency is visible in anti-communist slogans such as ‘…when sandals come to power, they turn into boots…’.
Similar attitudes are visible in some activist movements for the preservation of pre-socialist architectural heritage (‘Old Sofia’). In an activist text in defense (from its owners) of the so-called ‘House with the Berries’ we read the following nostalgic and patriarchal fantasies of class hierarchy from before 1944. 
‘how did a banker come up with the idea […] of planting strawberries […] his children probably played amongst them […] maids were making aromatic jams… it was amongst those strawberries that Sofia’s highlife gathered: women wearing hat veils, dressed in silk dresses, with their lips painted and their hands covered in lace elbow length gloves […] elegant gentlemen were probably strolling – with cigars in their hands – in the garden with the berries, whilst discussing politics, the rate of the golden Bulgarian lev, and the latest news from the palace.’
The sentimentally patriarchal image of the urban bourgeoisie is then frequently juxtaposed to the elite’s lack of aesthetic taste after 1944:
‘[…] militia boots are stomping over the strawberries […] the elegant Vienna-style furniture is carried away and used to decorate the houses of the red bourgeoisie. It was replaced with furniture manufactured according to the proletarian taste of some labour cooperative […]’
I do not claim that this is the sole motivation of all activists for reviving the image of ‘Old Sofia’, but rather that taking anti-communist nostalgia into account is important if we are to understand the role of images of the city and the village in the symbolic geography of post-socialist liberalism. There are also internal tensions in such narratives. For instance, in the same article, we find an expression of a wish for a second nationalisation (‘this house could perhaps become a literary centre’). This ‘centre’, however, would be impossible if one is to acknowledge the property rights of its lawful owners – consequently, its realisation requires that ownership rights be revoked or at least be radically constrained. Paradoxically, the ‘return’ of the pre-socialist past, the one from before nationalisation, requires a new nationalisation that could ‘save’ the property from its owners in the name of high culture. However, ‘it oughtn’t become a house for chalga*, as this would be a different kind of destitution – one that is even more horrid than the current state of desolation’. The fear of ‘chalga’ is also a fear of the village as well as of the symbolic pollution of the city by the presence of images of the village (like pop-folk.)
The neoliberal city and gentrification
Amongst the most widely spread neoliberal refrains in the domain of urban development policies are the ones associated with the entrepreneurial city*. The desired forces of the future are here understood as productive of the conditions (often also called ‘ecosystems’) for the flourishing of innovation and entrepreneurship and the accumulation of economic value, which would ‘trickle down’ and pour over everyone.
The remnants of the past are then often pit against the ‘entrepreneurial city’ – such remainders are, for instance, social policies (e.g. social housing) which produce ‘spoiled’ and ‘unproductive’ ‘social parasites’. This leads to the rise of punitive politics, which naturalise and simultaneously penalise poverty (e.g. in ‘gypsy crime’ talk).  In the neoliberal interpretative scheme, the ‘dangerous classes’ (living off ‘anachronistic’ social state welfare) are opposed to the ‘entrepreneurial state’. Measures of ‘zero tolerance’ are thus prescribed.
The penalisation of poverty is best illustrated in the so-called ‘theory’ of the broken window, according to which ‘disorder’ (understood in terms of street graffiti, ‘improperly’ sorted out rubbish, etc.) breeds ‘criminality’ and ‘antisocial behaviour’. This implies then a symbolic equation between ‘disorder’, ‘crime’, and ‘dirt’.
‘Criminality’ here does not refer to serious criminal actions such as particularly large-scale tax frauds. Nor does anyone claim that the American establishment lied on the war in Iraq (which led to hundreds of thousands of victims and the destabilisation of the world as a whole) because the lawn in front of the White House hadn’t been cut properly.
Instead, ‘criminality’ here concerns administrative breaches or small crimes such as disorderly waste disposal, violations of traffic ordinance or unregulated retail sales. The category ‘antisocial behaviour’ is also quite stretchy, as it includes things like alcohol consumption in parks or the organisation of unregistered parties like Reclaim the Streets.
Large-scale urban policies of ‘zero tolerance’ towards ‘vandalism’ and ‘antisocial behaviour’ based upon the ‘theory’ of the broken window were first implemented by the Mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s. The idea is that the removal of ‘irregularities’ and ‘disorder’ will clear the way towards the construction of the ‘neoliberal city’, which rejects social redistribution and stimulates the production of economic value by ‘efficient’ capitalist elites. In this sense, the ‘crimes’ which need to be uprooted through the clearing of ‘irregularities’ and ‘disorder’ are crimes against the smooth accumulation of capital.
The ‘theory’ of the broken window is not exhausted by better policing. It is also a call for the fight against ‘criminality’ – understood in the above sense as crimes against capital – to move from the hands of police onto the hands of the active civil society, which would watch over ‘irregularities’ that limit economic progress. In an article in the Bulgarian press, praising the 1990s neoliberalisation of New York, we read that according to the…
‘[…] ‘Theory of the broken window’ criminality is not just a matter of the Ministry of Interior. It also concerns all institutions which define how streets, busses, buildings, gardens, bus stops, subways, stations would look like […] The Ministry of Interior hasn’t yet stated this but it is only so because [it] has the tendency of thinking politics but never matters of civil concern […]’ 
The case for the gentrification of the Women’s market in Sofia  was also built by members of the City Council  and right-wing civil activists in terms of policing arguments about ‘criminality’, ‘disorder’ and so forth. There was a lot of talk about the women who sell cigarettes without paying excise taxes; yet, no talk of the big business entrepreneurs who import these cigarettes, ever took place.
‘Gentrification’ (or ‘urban renewal’) – the most popular subject of analysis in critical urban studies, comes as a result of the tension between the ‘entrepreneurial city’ and the penalisation of poverty. The other side of ‘urban renewal’ and entrepreneurial ecosystems development is the rhetoric of ‘zero tolerance’ and the criminalisation of poverty – the building of ‘necrosystems’ aiming to uproot what are seen as illegitimate (from the perspective of the ‘entrepreneurial city’) ghostly entrepreneurs.
‘Gentrification’ or ‘urban renewal’ designates policies for the increase of the economic value of ‘derelict’ urban zones. Gentrification is controversial as it leads to the displacement of socially marginalised groups (students, low-income workers, small entrepreneurs etc.). In many cases it is not deliberate but rather comes as a result of the working of the free market economy. An example of this is the increase of rent prices due to unregulated short-term letting offered by corporations such as Airbnb. Sometimes, however, gentrification is also motivated by racist and/or anti-communist considerations and not solely by liberal abstract aspirations to stimulate entrepreneurial spirit and the reproduction of capital.
The gentrification of the Women’s market was promoted as an instrument to cleanse the neighbourhood from ethnic minorities and simultaneously as a restoration of the pre-socialist looks of Sofia. At the same time, the area was also presented as a ‘contaminating’ and ‘improper’ presence of the village in the city, and from the perspective of the symbolic geography of post-1989 liberal activists, this constitutes grave anti-social behaviour.
The paradoxes of post-socialist urban activism
The categories through which dominant liberal interpretative frameworks are being construed and which are imposed on the debate on urban politics, are built around a series of dichotomous schemes of thought, which pit against each other the remnants of the past and the forces of the future. The former are commonly seen as embodied by things like non-transparent public institutions, architectural guilds, bureaucracy, lack of reforms, centralised planning, lack of transparency, corruption, and behind the scenes pulling of strings, but also by populism and bad mass taste. The forces of the future, which these are set in opposition to, on the other hand, are described via metaphors such as new generation, pro-European, open-minded, creative and entrepreneurial, educated middle-class youth, citizen activists, sustainability, good practices and transformation. The remnants of the past are ideological, whereas the forces of the future are rational; the former are linked to Balkan conservatives, the latter to European reformists, etc.
The insertion of such simplistic frames into the debate on urban development results in a series of paradoxes. There are, for instance, activist researchers who claim they oppose ‘gentrification’, but would at the same time participate in pro-market projects for ‘urban renewal with youth participation’. How can we explain such contradictions?
Although they are synonyms, the term ‘gentrification’ is a direct loan-word from English, whereas urban ‘renewal’ and ‘improvement’ are its Bulgarian translations. Even a cursory look at the English-language part of the Internet demonstrates how wide-spread resistance movements against the politics of ‘urban renewal’ have become. By the ‘English-language’ part of the Internet, I don’t intend to refer to struggles in the Anglo-American world only; what I have in mind instead, is the most common source of international news for expert-activists. The Istanbul protests of 2013 for the ‘right to a city’ and against gentrification were, for instance, amongst some of the most mass and significant mobilisations of similar kind world-wide. The aesthetic frame of these struggles could be defined as progressive, youthful, citizen-led initiatives against a system which only serves elites. In fact these protests are often articulated in these very terms. Yet, the appropriation of global aesthetic images of resistance in the Bulgarian context could absorb them into the framework of the simplistic postsocialist liberal oppositions described above.
If the aim was to break with the socialist past through an ‘Europeanisation’ and development of a civil society modelled after a Western ideal, it would then follow that the world-wide citizen-led and progressive anti-gentrification movements would be welcome – this, despite the fact that these movements tend to be driven by socialist and anti-capitalist motivations.
The combination of, on the one hand, appropriated images of civil protests abroad, with the hegemony of pro-market liberal positions in Bulgaria, on the other, forms the background on which light must be shed in order to understand how it is possible to simultaneously plead against gentrification and for urban renewal.
English-language sociological and geographic studies of the city are dominated by Marxist authors such as David Harvey and Neil Smith, whose research also feeds into and informs resistance to gentrification. David Harvey popularised Lefebvre’s concept of the ‘right to a city’, which has then been used by Marxist researchers and left-wing activists to demand the ‘return’ of the ‘right’ to a popular, inclusive and democratic governance of the city from below. This right is not understood as mediated by representatives of the capital or by liberal experts, but quite on the contrary – it calls for a break with the pro-market technocratic governance of the city. Because of this, the ‘right to the city’ stands opposed to the neoliberal ‘entrepreneurial city’ and to the penalisation of poverty – to the latter, it counterposes demands for the development of social institutions such as council housing.
However, the ‘right to a city’ could also be appropriated on a formal level by initiatives which do not share the radical-democratic and socialist premises of Marxist researchers and left-wing activists. For instance, in the context of the latest local elections in Bulgaria, the Sofia-based group ‘Right to a City’ posed 11 questions to the mayoral nominees. Some of the questions were starkly value-infused (‘How are you going to prevent the installation of vulgar kitsch monuments presented as patriotic initiatives?’). Amongst the questions declared as ecology-related, there were also some which de facto tackle the formally aesthetic concerns of activists (‘Will you prohibit the partial confirmation of buildings?’)
In other words, irrespective of the fact that the concept of ‘right to a city’ could be traced back to socialist mobilisations against gentrification and, more broadly, to the Marxist critique of the capitalist city, the Sofia-based initiative ‘Right to a City’ not only fails to be based on any socialist suppositions, but it completely lacks interest in the local government’s social policies. Their questionnaire did not ask a single question which was related to fiscal policy, disabled people’s right to mobility, public transportation, kindergartens, shelters, ethnic segregation, social kitchens, health care, education, or housing policies.
Yet, I wish to clarify that this is not to say that the appropriation of Marxist terms for non-Marxist purposes is in any way forbidden. I don’t seek to moralise activists, but to use this example to demonstrate the paradoxes resulting from the appropriation of Western activist and research notions into the context of the liberal symbolic universe in Bulgaria.
Civil society against the state – or liberalisation against democratisation
Liberal ideological clichés are often seen as a product of the private sector – of business representatives or western funded think tanks that generate liberal expertise. The problem with this point of view, often presented as leftist, is that it adopts the same premises that it claims to criticise. It draws the same oppositions – the market and civil society against the state; the future against the past; West against East, etc.
Any sustained examination will, however, detect that such attempts to distinguish between private and other sources are unfounded – there is no singular source of liberal ideological clichés, and they cannot be attributed to a specific type of institution (private or state-run). In fact, these very same notions are often constructed precisely by public institutions.
For instance, in a 2014 analysis of Sofia’s bid for European Capital of Culture, authored by Svetoslava Naydenova, we read that the City Council’s paperwork is full of phrases such as ‘active citizenship’, ‘new European democracy in the context of a globalised economy’, ’relinquishing the past and heading towards a common European future’.  This shows that in their official language, public institutions use the very notions and concepts commonly attributed to the private sector and civil society.
In the same analysis, we read that a similar logic pierces through not only institutional discourses but also citizen-led initiatives. The example, brought forth by Naydenova, is the ‘Sofia Breathes’ festival – she shows how photos from the festival construct images which exclude some, in her words, ‘typical inhabitants’ such as ‘beggars and emigrants [sic!]’. The festival’s lens, she argues, seemed to only produce images of ‘urban Europeans who buy hand-crafted objects and enjoy […] cultural events.’
Another telling example is the presence of dominant liberal ideological elements in the ‘Eternal Sofia’ song* which opened a 2015 city music festival (part of Sofia City Council’s cultural calendar). This is a song that had not been produced as a market commodity but was intended for free public consumption (e.g. on events with local government funding, events supported by the national television, etc.). Although the song itself was composed in the musical style of late socialism, its lyrics speak of “old Sofia [which] used to be a modern city, not submerged in darkness”. What is more, the song lyrics get to mention the attack on St. Nedelya church (“semi-ruined temple”), but at the same time, insist on the lack of social conflicts before 1944 (“poor and rich traversed the capital by tram”).
The song dramatizes a conversation between a granddaughter and her grandfather. The grandfather speaks on behalf of pre-socialist Sofia, while the granddaughter – of post-socialist, while the time between 1944 and 1989 fails to get any reference. After glorifying ‘Old Sofia’ the lyrics jump onto an apologetic discourse (by the granddaughter) on the unregulated construction boom after 1989 (“new building upon building emerged with finesse”), and then onto political calls for joining the Eurozone (“my hope is one day to pay with euro for my metro ticket to Nadezhda*’).
The hegemonic liberal dichotomies (such as ‘civil society against the state’, ‘West against East’, and so forth) are equally shared by both business and civil society, by the state and the market, and permeate expert as well as everyday notions alike. This is why rather than differentiating between distinct alleged sources of one ideological belief or another, it would be more productive to distinguish between types of beliefs – for instance between liberal and democratic. Such differentiation would then be capable of accounting for the frequent antidemocratic effects of liberal reforms.
The antidemocratic effects of liberal reforms
As I already suggested, the dominant liberal perspective on the desired direction for urban development could be understood as an aspiration to create an ‘entrepreneurial city’, whose reverse side is the penalisation of poverty, which is, on its part, based on the restoration of raw class domination and capital accumulation. Certain antidemocratic effects follow from liberal market rationality – any social groups considered incapable of generating (enough) value get excluded and pushed aside. In this way, the logic of gentrification constitutes the exact opposite of the logic of democracy.
This is not to say that all liberal urban activists, even when they openly speak of the necessity for ‘urban development’ and for the creation of conditions for efficient entrepreneurial initiatives, always willingly seek to marginalise large social groups – as in the case of the ‘Women’s Market’ in Sofia.
It is likely that most (or at least a significant part) of the activists who fight to retain Sofia’s pre-socialist architectural look, do not share the above mentioned anti-communist and patriarchal-conservative nostalgia for ‘Old Sofia’: labouring maids who produce ‘aromatic jams’, beautiful ‘women wearing hat veils’ and ‘elegant gentlemen’ who – with ‘cigars in their hands’ – discuss politics. More often than not, activism for the preservation of pre-socialist architectural heritage takes the form of an aspiration for an abstract ‘aestheticization’ of the city.
However, such urban ‘aestheticization’ is far from neutral, since its aesthetic conceptions are rooted in diverging ideological presuppositions (democratic or liberal). This is why it becomes possible for identical architectural forms to be assessed in radically different ways, depending on who does the assessment and how.
For instance, the Jaclyn residential building in Sofia received piles of awards and praise from ‘architecture experts’. Its facade, however, mimics the people’s individualised strategies to cope with their inability to pay for heating bills during post-socialism.* The imitation of the desperate attempts of the popular class to cope with social inequalities after 1989 is received with admiration by the expert elites. The original subject of this imitation, however, is shunned by liberal urban activists (as in the aforementioned initiative ‘Right to a City’) who question the ban on ‘partial remediation of buildings’.
The broken window ‘theory’, too, is deeply aesthetically biased by virtue of it condemning ‘disorder’, ‘anti-social behaviour’ and street graffiti which are seen by local government and by business as barriers to the development of ‘entrepreneurial’ cities and the extraction of economic value. The assumptions of the neoliberal understanding of ‘good practices’ are themselves shared not just by the police and local government, but also by many citizen activists. There further exists a vulgarised broken window ‘theory’ of active citizenship which, for instance, laments non-compliance with the ban on smoking in coffee shops and restaurants. The gentrification of the Women’s Market too was legitimised in terms of a ‘need to tackle disorder’, as well as through racist and xenophobic civil initiatives.
With this, I don’t claim that vulgarised appropriations of the broken window ‘theory’ are always racist, but rather that specific policing and aesthetic perceptions of law and order are being adopted by civil activists for the purposes of boosting the economic value of the city. We also come across appeals to active citizens’ sense of aesthetics in the expert literature. The aesthetic dispositions of engaged citizens sought after by experts further resemble the assumptions of the broken window ‘theory’.
In the project manual of an ‘urban renewal’ project with ‘youth participation’, which calls for the inclusion of the ‘active citizenry’, we come across the following guidelines for ‘volunteers’ who are asked to ‘scan’ for ‘places in need’:
‘Among the spaces you could scan in order to find places in NEED are relationship-rich sites in the neighbourhood, as well as empty border zones in-between housing and industrial territories, some of the main roads, riverbeds, etc. You can find them in different sizes and states of (dis)order – dirty and in ruins, cast aside and neglected, empty and abandoned, derelict and emptied of meaning or laden with negative content and affected by external influences.’
It is likely that none of the volunteers realises the extent to which what they are doing shares many of the presuppositions of the broken window ‘theory’. However, in the quote above one can trace many of the premises on which police rationality is based– the practice of ‘scanning’ for irregularities and lack of order, abandonment and ‘negative meaning’. The latter is not defined clearly, leaving it to the aesthetic sense of the scanning active citizen to recognize the ‘place in need’. This is how these particular conceptions of ‘places in need’ and ‘negative meaning’ easily slide into discriminatory calls for gentrification and social exclusion.
An expert article on the case of the Rotunda in Sofia’s Central Station proposes interesting efficient means for urban renewal and economic growth and, in the long run, for an ‘aestheticization’ of urban space.  The area is defined as one of the city’s ‘open wounds’ which attracts groups ‘carrying’ ‘criminality, prostitution’ and ‘vagabondage’, as well as ‘disreputable small-scale, businesses that function on the margins of the law’. According to experts, a ‘possible solution’ to the problem is to relocate these dwellers. For this, it would be necessary, they argue, “to remove the ‘infected’ parts’ which spread ‘decay’ from ‘the sick spaces to their contact zones’, – a spread that consistently impedes attempts at ‘aestheticization’. It must be pointed out here that this quote does not come from research conducted by activists of the Patriotic Front or any other far-right political formation – these are guidelines perceived as legitimate by a significant part of the liberally-minded ‘active citizenry.’
This is why it is not enough to simply increase the levels of ‘civil participation’ in the formation of local government policies via the introduction of all kinds of expert-civil collaborations. It doesn’t matter at all how many activists will ‘scan’ for ‘lack of order’ if their ‘scanning devices’ are set on the anti-democratic (but also liberal) waves of the broken window ‘theory’.
Translation from Bulgarian: Neda Genova
Edited by: Veronika Stoyanova
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Cover image: Photo of the Jaclyn building.
Georgi Medarov holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Sofia. He is a member of the Collective for Social Interventions, Sofia.