Today, it is intellectually fashionable to refer to “the new mobility”, just as it was fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s to allude to “the postmodern condition”, and, in the 1990s, to “identity”. Now, talk is all about “flows” and the “dialectic of mobility and moorings”. Yet fashionable though it may be, the discourse should not be underestimated. If everybody from Tokyo to Los Angeles suddenly starts to talk about one thing, there must be something more to it than cultural policy, institutional buzzwords, or authors’ desire to be interesting.
For me, all three fashions are a symptom of the crisis of classical modern national citizenship and of the search for alternatives. Postmodern thought aestheticizes this crisis, plays with its eclecticism, draws hedonist conclusions from the collapse of moral order. The identitarian problematic, accentuated in south eastern Europe by the Balkan wars, tries to reinterpret the social order through cultural models, traditions, and even contents; to transfer the functions of ailing modern institutions onto communities. Finally, the thematic of flows marks the moment of resignation to the fact that territorial definitions of the world have altered for good and that one should look for new forms of democracy. All three modes of discourse represent a search for a frame of reference in a world where borders are becoming mobile.
Mobility provokes ambivalent reactions. On one hand, there is the extreme negativism towards neoliberalism, not to say American imperialism (e.g. in Le Monde diplomatique). On the other, there is the euphoria of freedom, of new horizons, of the acceleration of history often to be witnessed in British sociology (e.g. in John Urry et al.). It seems that a lack of European citizenship is compensated for by discursive investments in transnational transport corridors: missing citizens are replaced by flows and networks. In order not to lose our sense of reality, however, we should first analyze the new rights that mobile citizenship entails, and especially their subjective reception and practice beyond written norms and official documents. Such was the aim of the study I conducted in 2006 and whose results I present below.
The first shock for the researcher working on the new Bulgarian migrants is that nobody knows their exact number. For example, the Agency for Bulgarians Abroad estimates that between 300 000 to 900 000 “young Bulgarians” live in Europe and the US. Ignoring the strange disregard for old, temporarily resident, or illegal migrants, as well as those in other emigration destinations, the question is: How can a state institution use an approximation of half a million? The situation in municipalities is similar: estimates of the inhabitants of a city vary dramatically, even when you talk to officials in charge of public services. This might partially be due to the ambiguous interests of local authorities: when requesting funds, they prefer to declare that there are more city dwellers than there are; but when it comes to reporting on what services have been provided, it suits them to say that there are fewer.
How large is the “floating population” in Bulgaria (to borrow a term used in China for the population that moves in search for jobs, but cannot or does not want to settle definitively)? Sociologists estimate it at over one million, in other words at over 13 per cent; compared to the world average of 3 per cent, that is an impressive figure.
Every attempt to define migration raises problems. For instance, is a person who spends ten years abroad a temporary migrant? Are those who leave their children behind in Bulgaria permanent migrants? Subjective self-evaluation aggravates the problem even further, since migrants usually define themselves according to their present situation – for example, a conflict with an employer abroad makes the probability of returning home more real. I do not raise this problem here as an obligatory apologetic introduction or as an exercise in psychology. The difficulty in talking about migrants is structural: it resembles the principle of indeterminacy that Heisenberg introduced into physics, according to which we cannot know both the mass and the speed of an elementary particle.
In an era where travelling is simpler, where foreigners have more rights and freedoms, where cultural differences are taken into account so that they can be all the more easily dismantled and reassembled, the horizon of departure becomes a basic dimension of the world. Of course, people have always been able to leave and seek happiness – yet it has always been a matter of effort. They either had to wage war, to marry, or somehow to come under the patronage of the locals. In the last few decades, it seems that the effort to stay and the effort to leave have begun to become comparable. If you stay at home, you must fight for your right to persist in what you are doing; if you leave, you may suddenly stumble upon a better opportunity at the immense marketplace of citizenships. On one hand, there is the old territorial participation; on the other, there is “voting with your feet” (to use the GDR expression of the late 1980s). The dimension of mobility will clearly need to be taken more seriously in the anthropology of citizenship.
The notion of “migrants” I use here covers recent emigrants, seasonal workers, and illegals. Even after regulating their position in the host country, migrants retain not only an emotional connection to Bulgaria, but also a registered address, real estate, professional connections, health insurance, and contact with their family (spouse and children), which in many cases they have left behind. Here, I focus on the “low” migrants, those who have no preliminary knowledge, credentials, or contacts and thus depend on intermediaries (friends, fellow villagers, fellow Balkan nationals, relatives, etc.). In the process of migration, they almost always lose some of their social status: the engineer becomes a builder, the teacher becomes a nurse. The minority of the “high” migrants that we excluded from the study – people with recognized qualifications, preliminary contacts, credentials, language proficiency – were essentially those able to get along on their own. The time frame is also important: the observations here refer to the period between the fall of the Berlin wall and Bulgaria’s accession to the EU in January 2007. Since then, though mobility is of course far from disappearing, the new rights acquired by migrants have change the picture.
What does the ideal-typical trajectory of the migrant look like? According to the biographies we collected, it goes through four periods. The first is the dream. General pessimism about the country’s future, together with vague images of abroad and hearsay generated by friends or the media, creates a feeling of identification with the fellow-countrymen who have emigrated successfully, much the same as one identifies with lottery winners (when the exception, rather than the rule, is visible). Instead of rationally calculating their strengths and weaknesses and building a global existential strategy, prospective migrants oscillate between hope and despair. Generally, they have no institutional support from the state when deciding to emigrate and depend on information collected by chance, if not deliberately manipulated by people who profit from people transfer. We met no one who had tried to learn the language of the destination country beforehand. Language preparation takes years while the decision to leave, according to the biographies we listened to, is made within a month.
There then follows a period of invisibility. Usually, the migrant spends some time as an illegal, or at least in some form of deviation from the rules: he or she does not pay taxes or social insurance, submits a counterfeit recommendation for a job, has no registered address, and so on. But even if everything is perfectly correct, the feeling of guilt remains: there always seems to be some rule one has failed to learn about, some requirement one has not fulfilled, that puts one at risk of being expelled. This feeling of have no rights, of being a second class citizen, is strengthened by the fact that in the initial period the migrant only communicates with the intermediary – the one who provides the job and accommodation and who acts as translator in relations with the employer. Salaries are low, work is temporary and exhausting, and a forty-hour week seems a luxury. The goal is not simply to survive, but to save money, which can only be done by working longer hours. Social or labour rights are reserved for the locals, not for newcomers, who arouse contempt and hostility for undercutting pay levels and employment standards in the host country.
Next comes slow, ambiguous integration. Progression to this stage does not necessarily mean that the proper documents have been acquired. It implies that the accumulation of a minimum of knowledge, skills and contacts enable one to take charge of one’s own affairs alone – including what Pierre Bourdieu called the ability to break the rules in accordance with the rule. Simultaneously, the symbolic wound of losing one’s status is transformed into a growing hatred for the host country and an ossification of identity. The horizon of return is a psychological protection against the hardships of migrant life. This does not mean that one necessarily returns, but that one never commits oneself completely to the local life, always keeping open the road to retreat.
Finally, there is the “triumphal” return. For those who decide – or are forced to decide – to give up and go home, return is usually experienced as defeat. Of course, money is an unambiguous measure of success; but however big the savings one comes home with, there always remains the feeling that they could have been more. Besides, the shock of considerably lower wages at home causes depression. Migrants returning to the home country have lost time and broken their connections, which makes reintegration difficult; they have to live on their savings, which start to disappear quickly. A frequent compensatory reaction is conspicuous consumption aimed at convincing others that one has done well. In most cases, the money saved with so much pain is spent on cars, flats and furniture, and rarely to start businesses (which is only the case with persons who planned to do so from the very beginning). In many cases, reintegration becomes impossible and the migrant leaves again: like the stranger of Alfred Schütz, he or she can never return home because they have become a stranger to themselves.
Let me now add to this typical migrant trajectory a few qualitative observations to give it more anthropological substance.
The place of contingency is surprising in biographies. In a sense, the very definition of the kind of migrants studied (those without preliminary knowledge, contacts, or skills) presupposes improvised departures. Yet we were surprised to hear in dozens of stories that there had been less than a month between the decision (most often provoked by being fired) and taking the bus. How can one to decide to change one’s life so quickly, without preparation, without any certainty whatsoever? “I left with some money in my pocket and the phone number of a young guy, the son of my grandmother’s cousin, whom I did not know personally”, said a woman migrating to Italy. Or: “What saved me was that, in the bus itself, I met a woman who turned out to be the wife of a friend of my husband.”
As always when people feel helpless, miraculous coincidences and unexplainable accidents multiply. The fellow traveller you just met offers you accommodation; the passer-by who saw you sitting in despair at the bus station at midnight becomes your first employer. Several times we heard the story about two friends, one of whom had been preparing to emigrate for years and the other who had joined him for company. And then you see what destiny is: the frivolous one (sometimes he tells the story) managed to survive abroad, while the pedantic one failed and returned disgraced. It is not my intention to study migrants’ urban legends but to emphasize the feeling of lack of control over one’s own life, which is precisely what generates this type of mythological thinking.
One should also note here the timelessness into which most “low” migrants fall. In most cases, the jobs defeat the initial expectations of people from higher socio-vocational groups: in career terms, there is no advantage in accumulating years of service on the black labour market. Let me mention the case of the student who enrolled at a northern European university in order to have the right to work as a waiter: he did not work in order to study, but pretended to study in order to work. The only thing that goes beyond the short-term is on one hand money, and on the other, regularization of documents. Migration also reveals a cultural discrepancy in the perception of time and age between East and West. In Bulgaria, one emerges from adolescence later but works until an older age; conversely, in the more developed capitalist countries, one plunges into professional life as soon as possible – under no circumstances allowing “gaps” to appear in one’s CV – yet is thrown out of the system much earlier. To live in the West with a Bulgarian temporality means to doom oneself to failure. The solution for migrants, at least in the realm of the imaginary, is the horizon of escape. What will we do when we get old and they fire us? Return home!
It is hard to overemphasize the role played by the lack of proficiency in the foreign language in the life of the migrant. Bulgarians have no major cultural problems in integration: religion plays no big role for them, their everyday life is built upon the imitation of western models, and gender relations do not differ dramatically. This is why language acquires such a weight as a cultural limit.
The percentage of Bulgarians declaring that they know no foreign language at all varies between 40 and 50 per cent. Of course, this does not mean that the proficiency of the other 50 to 60 per cent has been tested: the deplorable state of foreign language teaching in Bulgaria is notorious. For an overwhelming majority of the older generation, who studied under socialism, the foreign language is Russian, which does not help in the EU anyhow. One must also deduct from this figure about one-tenth of Bulgarian citizens whose second language is Turkish or another Balkan language. Statistics aside, there is a structural factor that sharply reduces language-proficiency: with few exceptions, the languages of the main emigration countries – Spain, Italy, and Greece – are not studied by young Bulgarians. What results is simple, but frightening. In most cases, the language is learnt on the spot in the course of a painful, temporary, and marginal existence.
The problem can be illustrated by a very concrete observation. Our team was surprised to learn that in Italy, Romanian women employed to care for elderly people are paid a hundred euros more per month than Bulgarian women. In a salary of 600 to 700 euros, that is a considerable difference. Behind the culturalist explanations and stereotypes, the reason turned out to be mundane: Romanians understand some Italian because of the proximity between the Romance languages, which makes them, other conditions being equal, better nurses. In interviews with builders that had worked in Spain, we learned that mastery of the foreign language to the extent that one is able to negotiate with the employer without help raises one’s salary by up to 50 per cent, since a “commission” to the go-between no longer needs to be paid.
Bulgarians abroad often take fees for finding jobs for newcomers and sometimes they sublet the miserable dwellings that they themselves are renting. On many occasions we heard stories of new arrivals being robbed by other Bulgarians on their first night, which is rather unpleasant for people who carry all their money on them. Hence the utterly ambivalent attitude to fellow countrymen: on the one hand, “it is the Bulgarian way”, “this is how we are, we always play dirty on one another”. On the other hand, “the Bulgarian is a Bulgarian”, “there is no one else to help you”.
But the role of intermediary is related not only to language: a main task is to assist the circumvention of the law, as they know its loopholes and grey zones. This is especially important in the southern European destinations, where no document and no recommendation can replace the personal contact. Where hiring always is done via a face-to-face assessment, somebody needs to bring you physically to your future boss. The middlemen are usually older immigrants who have passed through the initiation of semi-legal existence, for example Africans or Albanians in Italy or Latin-Americans in Spain. They provoke in eastern Europeans a racist identity crisis similar to the “miseries of position” (misères de position) that Bourdieu identified in the French suburbs, where one measures one’s misfortune by one’s own prejudices (“This is rock bottom, some negroes command me!”). The other phenomenon is the appearance of vague regional solidarities on a Balkan basis, where long-established Serbs, Croats or Turks take care of Bulgarian newcomers. Unlike the African go-between, the Serb has a definite emotional load: he can exploit you, nevertheless he is “one of us”. What is strange is that post-socialist solidarities (e.g. with Russians or Poles) occur seldom, maybe because of the differences in the relations with the EU that emerged among the former Eastern Bloc countries after the end of communism.
The ossification of stereotypes
It is has been argued that global mixing, instead of increasing understanding and tolerance, multiplies borders and sharpens conflicts. There is no cultural interaction that is not based on stereotypes; the very essence of the sign implies the reduction of infinite particularity into a simple frame that we will recognize again and again.
The ossification I am referring to is the result not simply of the more frequent physical encounter of people from different communities, but of the dissolution of the common public space in which they take place. This applies not only to language, but also to the horizon of values, the rules, and the institutionalized expression of the public interest. Migrants’ distrust of institutions is indicative; typically, they prefer to send money home via a stranger than by a bank transfer, which, in the final account, hardly comes out cheaper. On the one hand, migrants are discriminated against; on the other, they are tolerated as an important economic resource and are even periodically “granted amnesty”, in other words regularized. This double condition, which is especially prevalent in southern European countries, reduces the cost of labour and social standards, creating general submissiveness.
The other effect is the sharpening of ethnic struggle. I refer here to Fredrik Barth, who made a Copernican turn in thinking about this concept, showing that it is not ethnic identity that creates borders, but, conversely, that borders provoke identitarian experiences. In other words, practices of mobility, the encounter with rivals, and the struggle for resources are projected onto the imaginary as deep, essential differences, which crystallize into images and narratives. I use “ethnic” here in this sense: a fiction that results from borders, clashes, and rivalries.
Interviews with migrants are an inexhaustible source of stereotypes, especially when one talks to women. Italians are lazy; Ukrainian women are “ready to do whatever to round up the end of the month”; English men are real gentlemen because “they always pay your bill”; while the Germans are “the worse people on Earth”. This is how a young woman, who had worked as a waitress in Germany, described them:
They are horrible, totally ill-bred and only think of how to get drunk. They fart, they belch, they blow their noses noisily, and as soon as they see a young girl, they try to lay her.
Maybe the ethnic disgust becomes understandable if we try to imagine how the same girl might feel in a pub considerably below her socio-cultural environment in Bulgaria. Ethnic hatred diminishes in countries with liberal legislation, where migrants are treated more equally and as a consequence become integrated easier. Hence the Spanish, who until recently were thought by Bulgarians to be foreign, exotic, and inscrutable, emerged in interviews as those “closest to us”, as “southerners” and “party-loving”. Conversely, experience of the severe legislation in northern Europe overrides all memory of Bulgaria’s alliances with Germany, when the Bulgarians were called “the Prussians of the Balkans”.
The hypothesis of a discrete adaptation of identities to social practices is supported by another curious detail: Bulgarians in emigration often pretend they come from other, more prestigious countries. Since practically nothing is known about Bulgaria, migrants borrow the ethnic mask of better-known nations such as Serbia, Turkey, and Russia. A story that we heard in several different versions, and that is obviously an urban legend, illustrates this perfectly:
Someone brings a young Bulgarian man to a Spanish employer. “Where are you from?”, asks the boss. “Greece, the native land of philosophy.” “Oh, great. I have here a compatriot of yours, come and meet him.” Our guy starts sweating, his legs trembling as he approaches the other “Greek”, who seemed also to be rather nervous. “Are you one of us?”, he murmurs in Bulgarian. And the other exclaims: “Hey, thank God, I was wondering how to get out of this!” And the two compatriots embrace each other before the eyes of the smiling employer.
There is another limit to the free exchange of people, money and commodities that liberalism cannot but ignore: the family. You are related to your family before and beyond free contract; in this sense, it raises serious questions about global mobility.
How do husband and wife find a job simultaneously? This usually doesn’t happen and the couple has to spend up to ten years separated, expecting to bring the whole family to join the one who left once he or she has been able to stabilize their position. In the mean time, remittances are sent home, which vary according to the income; in most cases, a hundred euros per month is considered to be a decent support. In some cases, the departure is a result of a crisis in the couple; in other cases, it triggers a crisis and parallel relations occur.
An unexpected detail in the biographies was the relatively high age of emigration. In the group we defined as “low” migrants, we came time and again upon the following case: someone gets married, has a child, and then departs at and age of between 30 and 40. A probable explanation could be, as mentioned, the extended adolescence of Bulgarians: young people live with their parents until a late age, and it is marriage that makes them face the hardships of life and prompts them to seek miraculous solutions. Of course, events triggering departure act in tandem: you give birth and then you are fired by an irresponsible employer.
As for children, they, of course, are a dead weight for migrants. They are not covered by foreign social security systems in many respects and they make migrants much more vulnerable to all kinds of administrative control and police checks. After the mother has departed, the child stays with the grandmother, who gets not only a role and attention but also financial support for “the house in which the child is raised”. But this is not the old practice of adoption: the mother is present in the daily life of her child as a new, global tele-mother, who calls by mobile phone every day with special discount cards or, for the more successful ones, appears smiling or crying over Skype. She asks her son what he has had for breakfast and whether he did his homework, she scolds him, she applies long-distance punishments, she promises gifts; in short, she takes an active part in his upbringing. The dramas that take place when such tele-children finally reunite with their mothers are heart-rending: obviously, technology cannot yet replace presence; the parent is idealized and turned into a phantasm.
In fact, children are essential to migration ideology: in the biographies, the fact that they are left without parents for many long years (often during the most difficult period of their lives) is represented as a sacrifice “for their own good”. Parents migrate in order that the children should lack nothing, so that they can save for a flat for them, so that one day the children will be able to join them in the foreign country. Yet migrant children with whom we talked seemed far less ready to travel than their parents. Migration is something heavy, frightening, degrading; home seems better.
Of course, the best way to become integrated into the foreign environment is to marry. We met only a few such cases, either because they drop out of the Bulgarian community, or because they do not fall into the definition of the studied group: those who marry can usually communicate, they have friends and relations. The endogamy of Bulgarians abroad (and of emigrant communities in general) is largely due to unwillingness to invest in communication, to spend money on inviting of guests, on making gifts, on adapting to the cultural life of the country. In Rila, a Bulgarian town in whose inhabitants systematically migrate to Pamplona, I asked interviewees if they had ever gone to the bullfights attracting so many tourists there. The answer was no, they used the holidays around the bullfights to visit Bulgaria, because at then one could get days off. It is cheaper to drink the beer one buys in the supermarket on the bench in the park and to celebrate the New Year in one’s room. The problem is that one not only fails to learn the language (of which these people are aware), but also that one stays out of networks, fails to make connections, friends (of which they are not).
The double life
The picture that this study revealed was rather depressing. We met people who divided their lives in half: on one hand, hard toil, thriftiness, humiliation; on the other hand, leisure, consumption, conceit. A similar change was caused by the division of work and leisure brought by the emergence of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century. Today, this division today is not only temporal but also geographic: one travels abroad to work, one comes home to spend. In a certain sense, tourists from affluent countries perform a movement in the opposite direction, but following the same underlying structure. Or in the long-distance version: one works abroad, one’s relatives spend at home.
One of the obvious causes of this is the difference in the cost of labour and commodities: with Bulgaria’s gross national product at one-third of the EU average, everything earned abroad appears twice as large, everything spent at home appears twice as cheap. The migrant suddenly becomes several times richer – at least such is his or her feeling (since how are self-exploitation, misery, injustice, or a broken private life to be included into this calculation?). Of course, there is some effectiveness in this form of life: it stimulates economies, allows millions to earn a living and has been practiced for decades by Italians or Portuguese in France, for example, or by Mexicans in the USA. In the Soviet bloc, it existed with the system of residence permits and conditional migration. During classical modernity, however, migration had a fixed direction, there was a centre and a periphery, large and small, and the clear goal of settling down for life, which implies naturalization and the acquisition of all the rights of local citizens. Today’s postmodern mobility is a constant oscillation between two poles, and it is not at all evident from where one departs and where one arrives. The student here goes to pick oranges in the village there, the teacher becomes a nurse for the elderly. The new rhizomatic nature of space can be seen in the bus routes, which no longer depart from Sofia to Madrid, but connect one small place directly with another.
One way of thinking the new mobility could be the concept of “dispositive” used by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1975). In French, this word means not only a technical arrangement but also the deployment of military or police force: it suggests the link between the discursive and the spatial dimensions of power. The disciplinary dispositive is, in this sense, a heterogeneous formation that goes beyond the “episteme” of Archeology of Knowledge (1966), adding to it institutions, architectural arrangements, territorialization, taxonomies, legislative measures, scientific terms, moral attitudes, and so on.
The dispositive of knowledge/power does not possess transcendence. Rather, it is the form itself of social interactions, which means that it includes both power and resistance against it, both spoken and unspoken, consciousness and unconscious. The liberal arrangement of modernity goes even further: it implies a certain dose of freedom, as expressed in the physiocratic formula of laissez-faire. For Foucault, this liberal freedom of movement is the reverse side of the power dispositive. People (in this case migrants) left to circulate freely follow the folds of reality, they take into account the slits left by the dispositive. Moreover, the dispositive is so arranged as to direct free human flows. I will not be especially original if I say that today’s strengthened, liberalized mobility runs parallel with the “war on terror”, the most visible part of the new transnational power dispositive. New flows are “released” to circulate freely around lines and borders, which are fixed in new arrangements.
This other side of the disciplinary dispositive is suggested by Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity”. This is a world in which problems are not resolved through fight and conflict, but through escape, evasion, slipping and avoidance. This world is the reign of uncertainty, of radical ambiguity and of the incessant self-erasure of all knowledges, all former loyalties. The state and sociality in general are “runaway”.
Following an old anthropological invariant in all human cultures, power is close to chaos and death: it threatens to unleash the forces of evil if one does not obey it. In the post-national world, power threatens with its own disappearance: You don’t want to work for lower wages? Then we will move the factory to Bangalore. However, the liberation of power from its own dispositive, its unbinding from its spatial locatedness and the responsibilities towards the human communities it governs, has today been adopted by the subjects themselves. Such a strategy of resistance I called elsewhere “fluid citizenship”, which is practiced between two poles, neither of them stable, definitive, or fully engaging civil energies. In fluid citizenship, every problem may be resolved by escape and there is always a horizon of the elsewhere. The dominators escape in order to punish and conquer; the dominated escape to slip away and resist. Looked at in one way, this is a wonderful victory over death, or at least over the fear of death: life never ossifies, it is never fatally linked to the ground under one’s feet.