The “green” transition opens new spaces for accumulation. The cost of this is to be borne by society, especially by workers in old industries. Thus, the question here is not simply how to start the post-carbon era, but rather how to advance post-capitalism, as Stoyo Tetevenski argues in his contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism” by tackling the coal question in Bulgaria.
In April 2022, the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Water suspended the activities of the coal-fired Maritsa 3 Power Plant for repeated violations of air quality standards. That triggered a wave of protests of trade unions who opposed the loss of about 250 jobs in the power plant. Thousands of workers joined the protests as union sections from nearby electricity facilities also flooded the streets, for they feared their jobs were next on the line.
This is the latest episode in a series of developments concerning the coal question in Bulgaria, and an important sign regarding the new coalition government’s stand on shutting down the coal industry. The country has committed to end coal by 2038 to 2040. However, in 2021 it submitted the National Recovery and Resilience Plan that included projects for the gasification of the biggest coal complex, Maritsa Iztok, de facto scheduling the elimination of the coal industry by 2026. Later that plan was transformed to abandon natural gas as it is an import product. Instead, the government plans to fund a new gigantic plant for battery production that would cost billions. It is a risky move, as it relies on technological breakthroughs that should drive electricity storage prices down, and it is still unclear who will carry out this endeavor and how.
EU climate strategy: Workers pay
For the coal miners, these signs mean one thing: Bulgaria plans to hit coal fast and hard while questions of employment and electricity prices are left unanswered. Instead, the government’s Recovery plan promises to invest billions in the private sector to offset its green transition costs, hoping to spur economic growth and overall development. This comes to no surprise as it mirrors the EU climate strategy as a whole: bailing out businesses from impending climate collapse, while unloading the cost onto the workers through government subsidies for the private sector as well as higher prices.
This approach has been hailed by some as the return of the state in the economic sector and the end of austerity: Neoliberalism failed at addressing the climate crisis, the story goes, so governments are stepping up to impose strict controls and regulate a fast “green” transition – a truly “green” New Deal of sorts. Except no such thing is happening. What we are witnessing right now is, in fact, what capitalism has done since the beginning: having the state intervene in order to maximize profits.
It is a common misconception that neoliberalism advocates for a sort of laissez-faire policy where the state leaves the economy to the “invisible hand” of the market. We have seen time and again how privatization, deregulation, and the cutting of corporate taxation – the three pillars of neoliberalism as defined by Naomi Klein – have required heavy government involvement, be it brute police force or harsh austerity. The ‘free market’ has never been free, and it has necessitated the state in order to structure the economy for the maximum profiteering of the private sector.
After 2008, a certain intensification has occurred. While up to then crises, natural or produced, have been used as a pretext for raining down structural reforms (what Naomi Klein called ‘disaster capitalism’), ever since governments have entered into considerable debt to compensate business for all the costs that they have – also stemming from negating the crises they have created themselves.
Alleviate and expand
Since Covid-19, the Bulgarian government has paid out billions in various types of subsidies for private businesses, from partially paying the salaries of workers, to introducing tax exemptions. Notoriously, the state is now paying businesses compensations for the high prices of energy. While domestic households are still enjoying the protection of the soon-to-be-abolished state-controlled prices of energy, we are yet to see any compensation for the high inflation triggered by the energy prices that is now about as twice as high as the EU average.
As with the Covid-19 measures, climate policies serve a double purpose – on one side, they do alleviate some effects of the crisis they are addressing (be it prices, income, or greenhouse gas emissions), thus negating pushback. But essentially they aim to further the neoliberal project and save private profiteering at all costs. Under the auspices of the European Green Deal, the Bulgarian economy is preparing to reap the benefits of green capitalism. EU funding will pour billions into the economy, and nothing would fundamentally change. The government is preparing to subsidize businesses to cover their costs of transition while unloading all major aspects of climate change, and of the “green” transition itself, on the backs of the general population. Workers are expected to pick up the slack, and are offered no protection from the state. It is no surprise that many of them oppose the Deal.
The aforementioned case is a perfect example. The closure of the Maritsa 3 Power Plant has been seen by trade unions as the first step towards exiting coal. The government, on its part, has suggested that the plant can open again anytime as soon as it is “brought into such a condition as not to present an immediate danger of environmental pollution.” Instead of taking decisive measures such as nationalizing the plant (it plays a strategic balancing role in the country’s energy mix as a part of the so-called ‘cold reserve’), the government simply shut it down, prompting the owner to lay off all employees. Thus, the workers were forced to defend the owner and did not have any means to have a say in the future of their jobs or their city.
Such policies create deep divisions between coal industry workers and civil society actors who fight for healthier air quality or against climate change. The latter contribute to this division by underlying the connection between healthier environment and better living conditions – which sometimes looks ironic or downright cynical in the face of the unemployment and poverty that coal workers face.
Trade unions have been very active in promoting ideas for actual government intervention to facilitate the “green” transition while ensuring the social cost will be borne in a more just way. For example, some have proposed that the government-owned coal power plants themselves become investors in renewables, thus keeping parts of the energy sector under public control while offering a safe transition for coal workers who would stay in the same company. Others have thrown their support behind a government factory for green technologies that would be built in the heart of the mining region.
Scarcity for people and abundance for companies
Unfortunately, these braver demands gave way to a short-term strategy of defending coal as their means of survival. Thus, workers are playing a losing game with time, while the coal business instrumentalizes their fears to turn its agony into a new money-making enterprise. A recent announcement of a big investor acquiring another large coal-fired power plant, Maritsa Iztok 3, signals that the industry is preparing to reap the benefits of the transition.
At the same time, government plans to create new jobs by funding elderly care has been met with mockery by trade unions. Such dispositions reflect the long-standing devaluation of social reproduction – and the lack of understanding of the importance of gender equality for addressing the social and the ecological crises alike. Clearly, care homes cannot provide jobs for tens of thousands of coal workers, but the jobs provided will help others in a dire situation. Unfortunately, the government has long supported scarcity for people and abundance for companies; therefore situations like these only separate different struggles further apart.
What about nature? The European Green Deal is founded on the idea of ‘decoupling’ economic growth from resource consumption in order to sustain endless accumulation of capital. Thus, exploitation can go on perpetually, and no adjustments are necessary. However, there is no evidence whatsoever to support such a belief, and it is likely that the economy would still need a growing amount of minerals and energy to continue its growth. The reason why the EU is betting on such a dead-end approach is that virtually all alternatives that give us any chance of climate change mitigation require steep limitations on capital.
Restoring “our” relationship with the environment?
In order to address the climate crisis with the seriousness it needs, we need to scale down the working week; to impose bans on importing polluting goods from outsourced businesses; to put an end to animal agriculture; to restore natural habitats; to transform the economy into an economy of care; to establish free and accessible public transport; to introduce bans on goods that cannot be recycled or repaired; and to limit or abolish big polluters such as the construction industry, arms production and the military, mining and resource extraction.
Such massive transformation is what we need to restore our relationship with the environment. At the same time, any and all measures that address issues of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental destruction are indeed limitations on continuing accumulation. Hence, decoupling was put forward to open a new field of accumulation: green capitalism. From now on, it is not only that governments would put their trust in the private sector to simulate action on climate change. We are paying for it, both through the massive public funding being given out, and through suffering the effects of the climate crisis.
We need to demand a strong public intervention in the economy that puts an emphasis on providing fulfilling and sustainable livelihood for all. That would mean, on the one hand, redistributing wealth towards creating green jobs and a secure transition for coal workers and others involved in polluting industries. Investment in the private sector cannot guarantee continuous employment of workers, that is why we need a state-led transition under democratic and local control. That way we can ensure a fair living standard for transitioning workers while allowing for a community-based effort of redefining the future of each locality. Such an intervention would hurt capital accumulation badly, so we need to fight for structural changes that allow for such a transformation to occur.
Strategizing beyond fossils and beyond constant expansion
On the other hand, we need to underline the emergency of the climate crisis and its direct link with capitalism as a project of accumulation through the extraction of finite resources. Therefore in order to survive and transgress the crises capitalism creates, we need to strategize beyond fossils and beyond constant capitalist expansion. That does not mean progress will be stifled.
Advancement and development will continue where it is needed. But at the same time, industries that are polluting and continue to produce more goods for the sake of production should be limited and abolished. Consumerism should be fought through market controls, and other concrete measures such as a ban on planned obsolescence.
The “green” transition is a unique chance to redefine our relationship with nature and within our society. We have to articulate new and ambitious goals that address the climate emergency and demand swift actions. We mustn’t forget that a lot of people are facing unemployment and starvation – they need our support as well. Ignoring them would mean repeating yesterday’s errors. But there is no room for mistakes. We need to end capitalism, or it will end us.
Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de