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Неделя, 27 Декември 2015 14:03

Conspiracy Narratives at the Women’s Market

Nikola A. Venkov

Abstract: The Women's Market is a large street marketplace in post-socialist Sofia and the site of an ongoing conflict over the appropriation of urban space. I demonstrate that although stakeholders come from across a spectrum of class and power positions, they all end up employing conspiracy narratives to conceptualise each others' actions and interests. It turns out that neither conspiracy theorists nor their creations are necessarily marginal and excluded from the liberal public sphere. Introducing the theoretical notion of 'conspiracy narrative' as a lighter form of 'conspiracy theory' allows me to open up the strict claims made in the literature and to decouple analysis of the epistemic social functions which conspiratorial thinking performs from their usual attachment to fringe populations and extreme examples. Then, conspiratorial thinking is found to be the cheapest machinery for discursive action: the simplest device for producing understanding and the most accessible tool for critique of the social order.

Keywords: conspiracy theory, urban conflict, social mobilization, post-socialist society, public sphere

 

They say that, in periods of overturning of the social order, the production of conspiracy theories booms. A historical case in point is the explosion of fears of conspiracy during the French Revolution (Tackett, 2000), or the contemporary resurgence of conspiracy theories, often linked to ‘the massive restructuring of late capitalism’ and ‘the postmodern collapse of fixed meanings’ (Parish, 2000). This type of discourse is seen as expression of a heightened anxiety as order and validity are questioned and there is no source of secure truths: everything is just another interpretation.

For a long time conspiracy theories were seen in the relevant literature as associated with abnormal “styles of thinking” (Hofstadter, 1966), as harmful for the liberal democratic society (see Heins, 2007: 789), and simply irrational. Even today there are continuing efforts to demonstrate that conspiracy thinking is epistemologically flawed, or failing the logic of rational theory-building (e.g., Keely, 1999), or at least that it is an impractical tool for navigating through the social world, and so, to use it in practice is something irrational (see Coady, 2006). What has motivated this strand of research is the threat which conspiracy theories pose to the epistemological status of social sciences.[1] A traditional prejudice of the intellectual elites may also contribute (Clarke, 2002: 131-133), because conspiracy theories are seen as expounded by the masses, who pose an immanent threat to the liberal political project of the elites (see Fenster, 2008: 23-51, on the US case).

The more recent body of literature is cautious to disentangle judgment on the truth value of conspiracy theories from analysis of the epistemological mechanisms and interpretative practices of conspiracy theorising (e.g., Fenster, 2008). It emphasises the use value of conspiratorial narratives for the communities that employ them (e.g., West and Sanders, 2003), and acknowledges the power dynamics around labelling something a conspiracy theory (Pelkmans and Machold, 2011). It is increasingly recognised that distrust and suspicion of conspiracy have always been important building blocks of the democratic system (Fenster, 2008: 9, 109; Rosanvallon, 2008: 1-18).

In post-socialist Bulgaria the most significant cluster of conspiracy theories seeks an explanation for the “absurdity” of the lived history post 1989. The attempts to forge a teleological narrative about a “Transition” to a better society had become bankrupt already in the 1990s (Medarov, 2013: 81). No normative ideological discourse could be established after that. Medarov notes that none of the expert discourses on civil society, democratisation, and anti-corruption succeeded in gaining validity by relating to the lived experience of the people. Thus, the stage was left free for the ordinary people, who would search for the missing deeper logic of what had happened and what was happening around them.

Conspiracy theories construct the Transition’s “failure”, “setting-up”, or “hijacking”, in order to provide the ideological frame in which one could express one’s own experience of post-socialism as a break-up of social order, dissatisfaction and injustice. They offer a model by which seemingly idiosyncratic social shifts and re-orderings of lives could be given meaning. Thus, the logic of conspiracy has been practically pervading the popular perceptions of the socioeconomic transformations in Bulgaria, and, more generally, perceptions of the political and public life (Medarov, 2013; Medarov, 2014; Ditchev, 2012).

The present article aims to show that the logics of post-socialist conspiracy theorising are not constrained to the realm of grand questions about the Transition, such as big politics, new elite formation, privatisation, etc. They are instead ubiquitous, and, in a sense, everyday. By examining the ethnography of a local urban conflict around a recent urban redevelopment project, I show how they enter the thinking of local situations and locally-based social relationships. I demonstrate that all the actors involved use conspiratorial elements to conceptualise the social reality of what is happening, including the actions and motives of one another. Everyone makes recourse to this type of narrative, including middle-class professionals and even municipal institutions. Contrary to the authors who try to draw a line between the rational liberal citizen and the practice of conspiracy theorising, I claim that “local political conspiracy theories”[2] have become part of everyone’s everyday life.

The literature has mostly concentrated on examples of overarching conspiracy theories. Here I would like to show that a conspiratorial mode of thinking is much more widespread than the imaginations about alien abductions and CIA plots, and at the same time it is not theoretically separable from them. This would allow me to decouple the analysis from the default focus on fringe populations and striking theories. To this end, I define a certain type of more elementary units that I call “conspiracy narratives”. I find that they have two fundamental aspects that serve quite a rational function: they are the simplest available epistemological device for production of understanding, and the most accessible tool for critique of the social order. From there I could make distinctions about the relevance of conspiratorial thinking for subjects with different social status.

On a final introductory note, although this study tends to emphasise the post-socialist aspect as an explanatory variable, this does not mean that the identified mechanisms and discourses do not operate in other societies too, especially in today’s neoliberal era. Ortmann and Heathershaw note: “the current proliferation of conspiracy theories is as much a post-Soviet phenomenon as it is a Western one. Neither is it simply a product of postmodernity or the Soviet break-up…” (Ortmann and Heathershaw, 2012: 556). Reflecting on the possible global relevance of the analysis undertaken here is, however, beyond the scope of this paper on a case study.

The Anthropologist’s theory

In this section I outline the main stakeholders in the urban conflict and briefly sketch out their mutual positioning. This will help the reader to follow the rich tapestry of conspiracy narratives laid out in the next sections.

The Women’s Market (Zhenski Pazar, a historical appellation) is a lively open-air marketplace for food and wares, located in the centre of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city. It is the largest and the oldest marketplace in the city, located along a pedestrian-only boulevard in a historical neighbourhood. In 2013 it attracted a pedestrian flow of 40 to 70 thousand visitors per day. However, since 2006 the Women’s Market has been reframed as a problem for the city. Policies that aim for the contraction of the market’s petty trade function have slowly made their way through municipal administration. Only a small part of the marketplace, which had been renovated a decade ago, was to remain functioning as a vegetable market, while the rest of the boulevard was to be redeveloped into a middle-class leisure zone, a pedestrian “high street”, manifesting the Bulgarian capital city’s “Europeanness” (as that is understood by the majority: ordered, clean, modern-looking, and cleared of signs of shameful rural or Roma presence).

The marketplace is run by a municipal company with its own executive director and staff of inspectors. The company’s objectives are dictated by the city council. The company takes care of several hundred market stalls and pavilions, which it rents out to individual vendors at exorbitant prices. However, the relationship of tenancy allows minorities that are discriminated against in the job market to start a business on their own here. This is why the proportion of Roma vendors has grown over the years, many of them moving here to get away from a desperate situation in the countryside. Most of these people look for accommodation in the immediate area and thus become true “locals”, sometimes living just opposite “their” stall.

A degree of informality coexists with and permeates the formal procedures of interaction between shoppers, vendors, inspectors, food quality control officers, market management, city councillors, and others at various levels (this is not unique: see, for example Semi, 2008). It ranges from poor pensioners selling garden produce illegally on the pavement to bribes purportedly being given to the market management to obtain control of large numbers of stalls. The degree of informality has created a public image of the Women’s Market as a place of criminality and danger.

Perhaps surprisingly, the policy of redevelopment of the Women’s Market was not simply a top-down decision made by the municipal authorities, who are being assimilated into a neoliberal regime and seek to market hitherto overlooked areas in the city. This was the result of seven years of efforts undertaken by a group of local homeowners who demanded the authorities’ concern about their quality of life “as residents of the city centre”. The clamour, the crowds, the smells, the litter, the altercations, the increasing presence of Roma and immigrants were all reasons for the homeowners to set up an activist association in 2005 and start a campaign with petitions, press conferences and meetings with institutions, demanding the “taming” of the marketplace. A year later the city councillors voted that planning for a redevelopment project would start.

Instrumental for the next stages in the process was the architect-general of Sofia, who is the head of an unelected urban planning administration tasked with preparing all documents and architectural competitions in the city. Vendors and shoppers at the market had little knowledge of what was going on, notwithstanding the triumphant headlines in the newspapers about a future “reconstruction” of the Women’s Market. The only critical perspectives came quite late: from my own research writings, and from a younger activist generation of architects, who have recently succeeded in organising in opposition to the architectural field’s establishment (see Yantchev, 2014).

This schematic summary of the socioeconomics and politics of the conflict over the neighbourhood’s future is gleaned from my four years’ relationship with the field. However, in the above there are many explicit and implicit causal links postulated, which, as we will see, could be construed in a number of different ways. Just one of these propositions has been previously investigated in three different explanatory paradigms (Venkov, 2012a).[3] The reader should therefore consider the story told above as just an attempt to reach a simple rational explanation of what happened at the Women’s Market. That is: as the anthropologist’s conspiracy theory.

The conspiracy narrative – a short form

“Those guys in the city council want to destroy everything good in Sofia! Dikov will probably charter yet another shopping mall there. He will splatter office-buildings all around to take in the commissions.” Active young citizens of Sofia (friends and colleagues of the author,[4] October 2012)
“Up there, nobody gives a damn about the poor crowd! They are only looking for ways to climb up high [i.e., to positions of power] and take their first million in their pockets. They don’t care that so many people are earning their bread in this place.” (Vendors at the market, March 2013)
“We are asking: why is this reconstruction being delayed for so many years? Looks like there are obstacles which are being set up artificially! For years now we have been getting promises from the architect-general but they turn out to be the utmost brazen lies!” (Members of the homeowners’ activist association, November 2011)
“Some of the people in the neighbourhood are wondering: who are you? What kind of interests are you going after? …How come all these architects, debates, protests, suddenly appeared out of the blue? And all this just days before the reconstruction we’ve waited for so long finally begins!” (Leaders of the homeowners’ association – toward this author, July 2013)

In my fieldwork at the Women’s Market I’ve been hearing statements of the kind quoted above for four years now. They have a lot in common: at the very least, they share a belief that every public act, or even act of inactivity, is directed by interests that differ from the declared reasons for the act. These interests are deemed immoral or illegitimate in some aspect; and, as it emerges from my fieldwork, the interests are almost always of an economic nature.

These perspectives form part of a bigger picture that sees part or most of public life as governed by unofficial forces. Public institutions are guided not by the common interest and by the rule of law as one should expect but by semi-apparent private interests that have no respect for the public good. Standing in opposition to all this is the speaker alone. By the very logic of the communicative act, his or her motivation comes out as authentic, open, understandably human – and even if it is economically oriented, this is quite a normal thing. This is the image of a dark world where most public resources, authority and principles are abused and the only light comes from the subject. The latter has a choice between resignation (as with the vendors and the citizens – Quotes 1 and 2 above) and a heroic struggle with the status quo of the economic interests (sometimes even successful: e.g., the homeowners’ association).

Could all instances of questioning the legitimacy of public action and authority by attributing private interest be considered conspiracy theories? As a starting point of the analysis I will use the definition given by Pelkmans and Machold (2011): a political conspiracy theory is an explanation which postulates that an event is (or is at least partly intended as) the effect of activities that have been planned and carried out by several actors away from public scrutiny, usually because they would be scandalous or controversial if placed under the spotlight. The authors add that only narratives uttered from marginal positions are labelled conspiracy theories; if recounted by the relatively powerful, the same stories are likely to acquire truth status and reshape the reality instead.

The Women’s Market redevelopment project is clearly a public act and grows out of a public, even if quite technical, procedure. However, the stories I am going to look at in the next section all claim that it was in part produced by non-public dealings that stepped outside the prescribed rules and practices for the respective fields of its production. In other words, it was the result of conspiratorial activities.

The nature of conspiracy theory-building is most often illustrated through the epistemology of “total conspiracy theories” (Räikkä, 2009: 186) which consider that “everything is interconnected” and “everything happens by design”. The entity that has created and controls the plot is usually foreign (aliens, secret organisations, communists) and for that reason needs to be quite abstract. The practice of conspiracy theorising is said to be an endless process that continuously seeks but never fully arrives at a final interpretation as it must incorporate every new secret uncovered (see, e.g., Fenster, 2008: 93-154).

The narratives I find in my field are not as ambitious; they try to explain away individual events only. More often they see actions as opportunist rather than following a grand design. The protagonists are not exotic and mysterious. They are all concrete persons, or groups of persons, which the narrator recognises from his or her life. However, they are always seen (even when this is not made explicit in the narration) as operating in coordination with others who remain unspecified. This is illustrated by Quotes 3 and 4 above. Although the public life of the figures is “tame” and well-known, it is from within the supposed network that their powers and influence derive, and have a threateningly unknown reach. For example, in Quote 1 the unlimited powers of Mr. Dikov to reshape the urban fabric (as we would find out, if we interrogate further our subject) stem from the fact that the architect-general informally presides over multiple networks that cannot be quite pinpointed: they spread into Sofia’s administration, alliances of construction businesses, entangle city councillors, the anonymous establishment architects…

There are enough grounds, I believe, to consider rationalisations of this type as conspiratorial, although they are related to a different theory-building practice in comparison to total conspiracy theories. To differentiate them as shorter forms, I will refer to them as conspiracy narratives.

Every conspiracy narrative exists against a background of other conspiratorial narratives, which are connected to further events, rumours, news reportage, personal knowledge, or even confirmed cases of wrongdoing. Not every narrative contains enough elements to form a proper conspiracy plot; however, they can link up with each other through common points of contact. Thus they could construct more complex conspiratorial realities not unlike full-fledged conspiracy theories. The web of narratives could build quite a holistic picture of the national society and post-socialist system.

Within the speech act, a given narrative could serve as an index symbol pointing to entire unuttered chains from the background of shared social knowledge. I will illustrate this through Quote 4 above. It implicates this author in a conspiracy of single-handedly organising diverse expressions of public opinion – whence making their integrity questionable. The protagonist is, of course, believed to be supported by an unidentified network of influence, as the question mark at the end of the sentence hints at. The open moments in the quote, however, easily connect to other narratives that for many people shape the image of the Women’s Market. For example, many would understand Quote 4 as an allegation that the anthropologist is an agent of certain circles of an administration/business/local-men-of-history alliance trying to protect the inflow of bribes from the market by prolonging the overcrowding and the “lawlessness” there as long as possible. Possibly, I am even involved in the same circles as Mr. Dikov? Anyone who holds grudges against the architect-general would naturally find Quote 3 pertinent and connect it to the chain.

Here is the conspiracy narrative that above sits in the background but connects in a fine way with Quote 4 to hint at the interpretation I offered. It is through this narrative that the homeowners rationalise why for decades the authorities did not take action against the alleged lawlessness of the market:

It is an open secret that… Please, take and follow the newspapers from some years ago: how many times [people] were caught, and directors were dismissed because of corruption, for getting money under the table. So: the market nourishes… if you wish, even political parties, depending on who is in control; the market feeds mayors – there are no less than legends about former district mayors, I will not cite names... – [legends for the stalls] which are then sublet by certain individuals [the characters I have denoted as “local-men-of-history”], and so on. [Consp. 0]

Next I will describe how different groups in the urban conflict conceptualise the happening or not happening of the redevelopment project through conspiratorial narratives. It is worth noting that the urban project draws the stakeholders’ attention but it is each other that they see in the light of a conspiratorial logic shared by all. I have limited the sample to 14 narratives that showcase most of the groups involved in the conflict as speakers and as characters in the plot. The conspiracy narratives are numbered in square brackets, as Consp. 0 above, in order to be referred to further in the text (in round parentheses).

pazar

Fig. 1. A scene at the market in September 2011 (left) and some of the project’s computer visualisations of the market future (right).

An ethnography of conspiracy narratives

In August 2013 “the old part” of the Women’s Market was demolished by some of the same poor who were previously benefiting from it. Several hundreds of trader families lost their businesses. When a few months earlier visualisations of the future project were put up on site, the computer-rendered clean and empty landscapes with fountains, gardens, an art gallery and artisans’ ateliers, looked simply absurd in the context of the busy and crowded marketplace (Fig. 1). Yet the vendors promptly found a very rational explanation for this illogical future. As we were sitting and chatting next to the market’s garden, which at the time was nothing more than a concrete-rimmed grass plot, some patches of grass surviving, they said:

“And now, where is this money going to go? Where would it be directed, eh? Seven million! [=3.5 million euro – the announced budget of the redevelopment project, funded by EU financial instruments.] Well, we know the answer very well. Boyko [the first name of the former mayor of Sofia and now the Prime-minister] had handed out 3 million for [fixing] the gardens. [A sweeping gesture with the hand making a reference to the evident result next to us.] Well, let’s say he gave half a million for the gardens. The remaining two and a half million are in his pockets. That’s how it is.”

In this scenario the city is seen as a playground for the power-holding officials who are constantly seeking new sites for public investments, in order to maintain a flow of funds that could then be diverted [Consp. 1]. There is an insurmountable gulf between the “politicians”, who are freely able to convert into earnings their fathomless administrative powers and social capital, and the “ordinary people” who scrape by to make a living. The latter are often under threat of losing their means of living because of the callous schemes of the former (see also Quote 2 in the beginning of the previous section). The more marginalised is a social group, that is, the longer is the distance from the zones where decision making happens, the more straightforward form this narrative takes. A middle-class Bulgarian would typically imagine that a complex network of officials, administrators and private company executives (see Quote 2) would cream off, say, 10 or 20 percent of the project costs. For Roma vendors at the market, as we see, some 85% of the sum could be appropriated by the mayor directly. For them he is the visible political figure and a figure that is employed as a metaphor for the entire group of the elite, to which they have little access anyway. The large social distance makes detailed truth unknowable but also not really mattering.

At the high end of the social spectrum, we see the activist architects constructing a conspiracy narrative that is highly specific and concrete. Profit from this project would be realised by the construction company, which would save on costs through replacing materials and cutting their quantities from those specified in the design blueprint. For such an operation to be profitable, the scale of construction has to be sufficiently grand, and hence the invasive plans for the marketplace and the city council’s insistence on going through with them despite civic opposition. Profits are shared among the company, the project architects, the municipal supervision agencies, the architect-general (who is their superior), as well as an unknown web of city councillors and apparatchiks [Consp. 2]. This version of the conspiracy narrative is informed by the activists’ professional knowledge as well as by a background of conspiratorial narratives circulating in their professional guild. In the new era of technological transparency, the activists even briefly entertained the idea of installing webcams on the surrounding buildings to record and count the truck loads of materials entering and leaving the construction site, in order afterwards to hold officials accountable.

The activist architects and some other citizens also expressed their doubts about the predetermined choice of the design studio. The clue was that the same architect, Rositza Nikiforova, who won the competition for the project, had won two previous design competitions for the Women’s Market: for the conceptual design in 2006, and for an earlier partial renovation in the 1990s, both of them judged by the younger architects as very incompetent projects (see Bratkov, 2013). This narrative implied that she was close to certain circles in the municipality which made sure she would win all the competitions so that she helps them to realise properly their plans for the future of the site [Consp. 3].

I have argued elsewhere that in Sofia’s urban planning context only Nikiforova’s team could have legitimately won the competition (Venkov, 2013), and that protocols of the jury evaluation meeting hint that several members of the jury desperately tried to rig the results in favour of quite another firm (look: this is again the anthropologist’s conspiracy theory). Interestingly, prior to the competition, Nikiforova herself was worried that there was an(other) architect privileged by the organisers (see Nikiforova, 2011). They’d select his proposal with an inflated price, in order to split the profits afterwards [Consp. 4]. That architect in the end did not make a bid (why did he not – there is a narrative too...).

The ordinary visitor to the market knew nothing of all these intrigues. In most cases, he or she knew nothing of the plans for future transformation either (Fig. 2). The project for redevelopment was cleverly labelled as “reconstruction” which most people would understand simply as renovation rather than a change of use. On several occasions I observed how, as soon as someone grasped that latter aspect, they would spontaneously construe a conspiracy on the part of the hypermarket chains to shut down the marketplace. The existence of the Women’s Market was seen by the citizens as the last obstacle to a monopoly by the big chains over their consumer lives, an obstacle that the hypermarket owners wanted to remove [Consp. 5]. This logic presumes another scarier narrative: that those companies have already accomplished monopoly over the city government and made it the hand implementing big capital’s ambition for total domination.[5]

Fig. 2. TV reportage at the marketplace. The TV crew learned about the redevelopment plans onsite, from me. Despite the extensive details I gave them in line with the anthropologist’s conspiracy narrative, one can see how they got fixated on their own version of the hypermarkets’ plot (accessed 25.1.2014).

The neighbourhood residents seem to be the only ones who saw the authorities as acting sincerely in the name of the public interest (generously overlooking the fact that it is only the residents’ public interest). In my “anthropologist’s theory” I concur that their activism was a factor for setting the city council on a course for redevelopment of the Women’s Market (more details in Venkov, 2012a and 2012b). The residents’ association leaders believe that it was the pressure that they put on politicians and administrators that “woke up” the latter from their lethargy and forced them to take up their “duty of office” to work for the wellbeing of the citizens. The problem of the Women’s Market was solved:

“…because we’ve had so many meetings with [proudly lists the names of mayors, city councillors, heads of agencies]. We actively work together with the council committees. Everyone in the Municipality of Sofia knows us. Because in these seven years we haven’t stopped following [the issue] and demanding that our problems be solved as they should be.
And I can’t complain that they are not paying attention to us [see Fig. 3]. Unfortunately, some things require technological time [and this is why measures were slow to materialise]. On the other hand, if you are not constantly going after the issues, they are apparently so many in our city that your problems could recede to the background.”

Clearly, this narrative is non-conspiratorial: nobody here is doing anything under the table. It is the first one out of only two such narratives in this paper. Yet, when unrelated colleagues and friends were asking me about my work, and I told them about the future redevelopment of the market and shared my slightly more pragmatic version for the role of the homeowners’ lobbyism, they would dismiss it outright, with a half-jocular “Hah, so Dikov [the architect-general] is going to build yet another shopping mall!” (complementary to Quote 1 at the beginning of the previous section). It was only half-jocular exclamation though [Consp. 6]: everyone would invariably start reflecting on what the interest behind the institutions’ (and especially behind P. Dikov’s[6]) willingness to oblige to the demands of the homeowners could be. Nobody believed they would be simply doing their job!

There were observers who took this logic further, proposing that the grassroots association was set up in order to serve one of the sides in some backroom battle waged over the area’s economic future [Consp. 7]. The homeowners were manipulated in order to mobilise and provide public legitimacy for the redevelopment; or, in the best case scenario, they were genuine but just lucky that their desires coincided with the agenda of the powerful players.

We see that a success of a civic mobilisation, the explanation that is least conspiratorial, appears to be the least rational! This is nicely illustrated by a discussion I had with one of my respondents, a local resident, whom I will call Dr. Tzvetkov. He lives next to the market but does not hold any particular grudges against it and does not participate in the homeowners’ association. He insisted that their success required explanation through economic arguments:

“It just ain’t possible that every super active nut can make an association, convince the administration, and achieve their own. There must be an economic reason behind these things [the redevelopment]. […]
Now, imagine, there is a person who has a super-idea! Let’s say, an idea to plant a pine tree in the middle of the market. ...An idea! That person begins, pedals forth, makes associations, meetings, and whatnot; pushes forth super actively: who knows, maybe something would come out. Is it possible that only as a result of that the administration would take a purposeful decision, pour money in it, and realise it? […] Then every crazy person will [make] us... [crazy]. Tomorrow another one will say: “Guys, let’s dig an oil well! We’ll all get rich!” Do you understand? This super activity [of the association] is not an explanation for the situation. […] There must be a clear economic model as to why this is happening or not happening.”

Fig. 3. An illustration of the close relationship between the homeowners association and the municipal authority: a public meeting with the candidate for mayor of the party that took to heart the cause of removing the Women’s Market. Filmed by DSBMaystora on 7.VІ.2011 (accessed 18.02.2014).

Indeed, people have a good reason to look for causes beyond the authorities’ conscience of their duty. If today the authorities are promoting a clean, ordered and “European” market as an evident policy toward the city’s good, how could one then explain their inactivity about the same issue for two decades? The candidates are inertness, incompetence, or vested interests in the status quo. None of these candidates speaks for the administration’s ability to “just do” its professional duty.

Despite being keen to demonstrate their successful civic role, even the homeowners held a wealth of conspiracy theories about the plight of their neighbourhood. The activist who was extolling their cooperation with the municipality, at other moments shared the following frustration:

“How would you explain to me that this market has been for decades called “The Gypsies’ Market” [after “The Women’s Market”], and how – you have seen it with your own eyes here – please, explain to me, how every second one here, maybe even more, is of gypsy provenance? How? Is it through a competition, or by a concept maybe? Is it a concept of the state, a concept of whom? Why is it like that?”[7] [Consp. 8]

This might seem like taking a tendency for teleological thinking to an absurd extreme, but it serves as a powerful expression of a sense of being let down and of a public crime being perpetrated. The following version, shared by a younger resident (in her 20s), fleshes out the narrative with some rationale:

Resident: I, for example, when I have a family, I would like to live here. What is sad is that now the state doesn’t offer me the conditions to raise my children here. I have the feeling that they are working towards making the citizens who have lived here to move out, and having such minorities instead to settle here. I don’t know why that is.
Interviewer (me): You think this is something orchestrated by the government rather than a natural process [that Roma are moving in the neighbourhood]?
Resident: Honestly, I don’t know. But it is a fact that this has not been a problem since last week. It has been a problem for years.

If the government were honest about its responsibilities, it would have taken measures to solve the brewing “problem”. A concerted conspiracy or simply turning a blind eye to the growing issue amounts to the same thing. For all it takes, it could be a conspiracy to turn a blind eye.

An open-ended narrative (i.e., left with many open moments in it, such as why are Roma being settled in the neighbourhood; who is able to orchestrate this and other mysteries) easily links up with other elements from the “public” background of conspiracy narratives to produce more complex narratives, such as [Consp. 9]:

Resident A: And it pains me the most that our area is just being… shut down. This area will be no more. And it is… they are deliberately destroying us.
Resident B: Yeah, there's such a theory. Some argued that they are purposely put here. To make us give up. And then somebody would build a mall for himself.
Resident C: Yes, so that everything collapses, and people give up [staying here] – and then... something new [will appear].

Familiar tropes stand out: the need for urban territory as a vital resource for channelling profitable public investments (see Consp. 1); or profits associated to the expansion of shopping malls in urban space (see Consp. 6). Somewhat disappointingly, once the mysterious moments are unravelled, the conspiracy comes down to serving simple economic ends one more time.[8]

The narrative of orchestrated Roma immigration could be construed in other ways too: the local district administration purposefully “installs gypsies” in the area’s historic buildings (many of them having served as social housing in the past), so that in the following years the old houses would be crumbling, “being wrecked from the inside”[9] [Consp. 10]. Then they would be privatised to administration insiders at minimal prices. They will embark on large-scale construction while the municipality resumes investments in the area, currently held out (as the physical condition of the marketplace attests). This complicated theory was shared mostly by citizens concerned about the area’s historical heritage.[10]

In the milieu of the heritage preservationists one more theory existed that definitely parted ways with the views of the homeowners, because it saw the reconstruction project as a threat. It took account of the fact that the largest number of buildings in Sofia designated as “cultural monuments” are located along the marketplace street, and that a two-story underground parking lot was planned to be built under the street. The theory is that the architect-general, Petar Dikov, was orchestrating the project in order to “accidentally” undermine the stability of the historic buildings during the construction of the parking lot [Consp. 11]. The buildings would thus crumble on their own, which, using some loopholes in the law, is a way to remove the owners’ responsibility about rebuilding and preservation of protected architecture. This would make room for new private construction and profits. An unprejudiced reader would consider such an outlandishly convoluted plot just for the collection of a few bribes from construction investors (see Quote 1 at the beginning of the previous section) as a sign of pathological conspiratorial imagination. However, the knowledgeable reader would find that every single element in it had a precedent in Sofia’s reality.[11]

Interestingly, the same public figures could be plausibly conspiring in totally opposite roles in different narrative plots. While citizens concerned about the market saw Dikov as the main culprit who was orchestrating the reconstruction for a financial gain (Consp. 11 and 6, even Consp. 1 and 2), the homeowners accused him of obstructing and delaying it, for financial gains again: the reconstruction took seven years to start because he was defending backroom interests of institutions and individuals that profited from the market’s chaotic status quo [Consp. 12] (see Quote 3 and Consp. 0).

I wouldn’t like to be in architect Dikov’s seat! However, homeowners get their own share of conspiracy narratives too. People from the municipal company managing the market (and its reconstruction) reckoned that the association’s eagerness and “civic” energy was coming from its members’ ambitions to sell their old and dilapidating properties at higher prices, at the expense of public institutions which would be investing to upgrade the area [Consp. 13].

Vendors, on the other hand, believed (when, in the period 2012-2013, they realised something was going on) that the owners had conspired to achieve the closing down of the market [Consp. 14] because the storefront properties in their buildings were attracting few tenants ever since business at the market declined in the mid-2000s (Fig. 4). The busy trade at the stalls in the street middle pulled the pedestrian flow there, and rents along the street flanks were considerably lower. Closing down the central aisle would force the traders to compete for the privately rented spaces (as it happened indeed in August 2013) and thus boost the residents’ income.


Fig. 4. A first direct encounter between the homeowners’ and the vendors’ narratives about the redevelopment. Documented during the making of a film by our “urgent archaeology” art initiative “The Unseen Women’s Market” a month before the old market was shut down (accessed 10.12.2014).

Post-socialism and conspiracy as a stereotype

There are a number of features common to all conspiracy narratives recounted above, pointing to values that are shared across the diverse spectrum of social positions. Now I take a second look in order to uncover some empirical grounds for the observed prevalence of the conspiratorial logic. Here I focus on the specifics of the post-socialist context, but in other contexts related or different chains of factors may, and do, facilitate the spread of conspiracy thinking. Its more universal functions will be discussed in the sections that come after.

In the ethnographic compendium of narratives above, all the actors view the pursuit of financial gain as morally suspect (Consp. 1-7, 9-14). At the same time, it is seen as the only valid rational motivation, as the only possible logic in contemporary society: every act, whose logic the subject cannot comprehend or does not like, is explained through an economic interest. If no opportunity for financial gain is directly visible, a scenario is conjured up implying that the public actors are executing a grand plan on behalf of others “behind them”. The logic of that plan still is, as it turns out, economic (Consp. 3, 5, 7, 9-10, 12). There is a gross discrepancy between these descriptions of others and the own ability of the narrator to act out of norms, aesthetics, and other respectable principles – or out of “ordinary human” motives. Yet, the subject sees “earning a living”, or desiring to raise the price of one’s property, as an “ordinary human” thing and not at all despicable when one is the protagonist (compare the homeowners’ position to Consp. 13-14; compare the allegation that Roma vendors are crooks to Quote 2).

Another aspect that stands out is that authorities are seen as responsible for controlling the economic, the demographic and the cultural dynamics, in the name of some universal common interest or just social order. Since the subject naturally sees herself as sharing this universal interest, she imagines its contents simply by universalising her own understandings and values. She projects them onto neighbours and authorities, who, naturally, fail to keep up to them[12]: politicians fail to justly consider the livelihoods of common people (Quote 2); Roma neighbours fail to look and behave like middle-class Bulgarians (to “integrate themselves”), while authorities fail to protect the cultural homogeneity of the city (Consp. 8). Further, most actors ascribe to and expect from “the authorities” (seen as a monolithic entity with a single will) an all-pervading power. As a result, if institutions do not clearly engage with the problem at hand, this is understood as a symptom of a very purposeful neglect or of a concerted plan (Consp. 0, 6, 8-12).

In only a partial attempt to make a genealogy of these dispositions,[13] I speculate that life under state socialism “educated” an ideal of a socially homogeneous space realisable by an all-powerful state policy. Late socialism, with its nationalist tint, expanded the ideal to one of a space homogeneous not only socially but also culturally.[14] These values still operate “from below” on an everyday level, despite the imposition of new hegemonic and value regimes “from above” since 1989 – here I use the idea of “everyday socialist ideology”[15] which is acquired by living in state socialist society and is quite distinct from the official ideology and propaganda of the state (although it might appropriate elements from those). It could be shared by individuals who otherwise repudiate some or all aspects of the regime.[16]

In the 1990s, under-funding led to the decline of most public services and put a hold on investments in the public realm. At the same time, the new liberal regime withdrew from exercising control over human populations and over the forms and spaces of cultural expression – i.e., the restrictive attitude to “the deviant” was abandoned. This nexus was experienced by many as “an abdication of all institutions” from their public responsibilities. This characteristic is defining for the experience of post-socialism in toto. A leader of the homeowners’ association articulated it like this:

“[After describing the desperate situation in their neighbourhood, raising his voice up to a culmination:] I ask, who permitted this to happen!? … [Rhetorical pause, and then, in a resigned voice:] Who permitted it is clear – t h e  b e z h a b e r i e.”[17]

Bezhabèrie in Bulgarian means total unconcern. The bezhabèrie discourse is organically coupled with another one – that of interès (“personal interest”): the unconcerned, unprincipled private interest which overcame all barriers and regulations in the ‘90s, destabilised the old social stratifications, subverted all ideologies and principled positions. As some got rich at any cost, and the rest survived, also at any cost, any claims of acting out of principles, ideology or high norms became more and more suspect. In the public imagination the plausibility of instrumental rationality (to use Weber’s notions) overshadowed that of value-oriented rationality, and the only publicly valid motivation that was left was interès.[18]

Reviewing the ethnographic observations in the previous section one can notice that a conspiratorial narrative shows up always when there is a social distance. On the other hand, non-economic (principled or “just human”) motives for someone’s actions can be recognised only when there is a close contact between the actors. Vendors and (non-middle class) shoppers at the market have virtually no access to the world of decision-makers, which results in wild speculations about the causes for their policies (Consp. 1, 5). The vendors and the members of the association didn’t communicate to each other either (Consp. 14 on the one side, and Consp. 8-9 on the other). Observers from outside the neighbourhood could not believe that the association had influenced municipal policy (Consp. 7, 11), although its members would see no need for any conspiratorial explanations there. On the other hand, contrary to the latter’s close relationship with the mayor and the city council, activists couldn’t communicate smoothly with the architect-general, the district municipality and the market’s management, and placed their doubts about the sincerity of the authorities’ efforts for reconstruction on them (Consp. 12). The same barrier engenders a narrative about profit and interès on the part of the institution too (Consp. 13).

The situation described here discloses the logic of the social stereotype as a mechanism for dealing with the Distant Other: stereotypes about groups with which one has very limited contact are typically formed on the basis of discourses brought in from elsewhere (Grekova, 1998; Tajfel, 1969). In this case, it is the discourses of the times, bezhabèrie and interès, that serve as a resource for categorising by default every new, socially distant, or unknown actor in the urban conflict.

Conspiracy theories as everyday tools

Uttering a conspiracy narrative simultaneously performs two different functions. In the previous section I suggested that conspiracy theories operate similarly to stereotypes. Conspiracy theory is the most economical epistemological mechanism for the everyday person to understand, just as stereotype is the most economical mechanism to classify and predict (Grekova, 1998). When there is no access to somebody through direct interaction, the natural way to understand her is to attribute rationality to her actions: she acts like that because she is guided by rational motives. These motives are the teleology of the conspiracy. In the case of complex socioeconomic processes, instead of coaching them in abstract terms as a social scientist would prefer, again, understanding is produced by seeking out a protagonist (with her invisible network) to whom a rational action could be imputed.[19]

The second function that a conspiracy narrative performs is constructing a critique of the social order from the position of the speaking subject. Hristov (2012) develops a related argument – that conspiracy theories are an instrument for resistance used by the masses devoid of authority in the public and political life. Since they have no power to tell “truths” about themselves (their subjective truths about their place in the social world), they embark upon undermining altogether the imposed order that is silencing them. The reality of post-socialism is subverted by resorting to occult interpretations of the Transition (Medarov, 2014), for example, or by claiming that all of it was pre-planned and “mapped out” in advance in 1989, and is directed today by an invisible group of communist cadres (Ditchev, 2012). In the United States, the President is an alien in disguise (Hristov, 2012).

Reinterpreting Hristov’s argument, I claim that conspiracy theories are used to tell “truths”. They are born as articulations of the subjects’ own “everyday” ideologies when those are incongruent with and silenced by the dominant ones. Earlier we met with so many instances of interès and bezhabèrie not only because those discourses question authority through a cognitive scheme that is easy to employ and re-use. The accumulation of such discourses offers a critique of the post-socialist period as a whole: as ubiquitously guided by interès and everywhere filled with bezhabèrie. They articulate a desire for a stable social order universalising a set of “high” norms from the standpoint of which the period appears immoral and unjust.

There are a few more aspects in which Hristov’s argument quoted above can be “weakened” and extended to give us a more nuanced understanding of the conditions when conspiracy theories operate as tools of critique. As conspiratorial narratives surrounding the Transition are constantly being performed, this type of logic turns into well-exercised and ready-to-use cognitive schemes. Conspiratorial logic becomes everyday and invisible. It can be absorbed even by groups that are said to stay away from this model of thinking (e.g., in Clarke, 2002), such as elites, intellectuals, those who have a place in the public sphere. We found that at the Women’s Market this logic can be used both by groups that are less or more privileged in the political order (architects and middle-class residents – more than vendors and shoppers). I claim that subjects of any social origin could invoke this apparatus, when they are partially excluded: from information about particular developments or from having their voices heard about particular issues.

All the actors involved in the urban conflict substitute their lack of deep knowledge about the politics and intrigues at the Women’s Market with more general truths drawn from their own contexts. Practically, subjects use “the problem of the Women’s Market” as a way to articulate issues that are of importance to their own contexts and agendas.[20] The activist architects see there the problem of fixed architectural competitions in the municipality (Consp. 3). Shoppers articulate their unease about the domination and continuing expansion of hypermarkets (Consp. 5). The citizens with high cultural capital are concerned about the loss of urban identity as a consequence of the proliferation of insipid new construction (malls and office buildings, Quote 1 and Consp. 6). Xenophobes are appalled by the incursion of minorities in the city centre (Consp. 8-10). Those who treasure Sofia’s historical identity are frustrated by the annihilation of the city’s cultural heritage (Consp. 10-11), and so on, and so forth. None of these concerns have ever received an adequate answer from those who are deemed responsible to deal with them, and this is why the form of their articulation becomes conspiratorial.

It is not necessary either that the “truths” themselves be totally excluded from the arena of public discussion. They can be rationally discussed within and among the concerned groups, and they could even go out on the media. To keep their conspiratorial form, it is necessary only that they be ignored by the protagonist who the actors see as significant for their concerns. In most of the cases discussed here, these are “the authorities”.

The administration is the only urban actor missing as a speaker in the ethnographic compendium of narratives at the market. This is because it is not possible to formulate conspiratorial narratives from a position of power. As Pelkmans and Machold (2011) note, the subjective “truth” of those vested in power gains the authority of an objective truth, and has the power to discursively reshape reality. It is hard to speak critically when one holds the power to act about the problem or leave it be. When a city councillor told me the story about the Roma invasion in the area (the same “truth” articulated by the homeowners in Consp. 8; he is closely working with them and helping them out with their struggle), he could not and cannot construct it through mystery, by asking questions such as “Why is this happening?” and “Who is behind it?” He narrates it instead as an objective problem that is to be solved effectively, by applying his institution’s will and authority. Only one out of the fifteen conspiratorial narratives listed here is narrated by the administration: Consp. 13. In that case, the market administration was, again, partially dominated, as it was obliged to follow the interests of the homeowners who seemed to enjoy a privileged relationship with its superior, the city council.

Conspiratorial logics could even be converted into tools suited for the public sphere. The community of young architects is the most successful example in this regard: their conspiratorial account about the opaque nominations of “anonymous” establishment architects to all public projects in Sofia has now become the hegemonic view. Although the municipal administration is put on the defensive here, it stays publicly silent, thus forcing a conspiratorial logic.

The (neo)liberal discourse about civil society in fact institutionalises conspiratorial logics. Civil society is seen as constituted of groups of free citizens who self-organise because they are genuinely concerned about a given issue and willing to take responsibility for it, and take it away from state institutions that cannot be trusted enough to provide what they promise (Kabaktchieva, 2001). This repeats the basic spirit of the conspiracy narrative. All conflicts around urban projects in Sofia (see Yantchev, 2014) follow a model that constructs the opposition “citizen group vs. institutions”. The “citizens” are associated with transparency, openness, rationality, concern for the public interest; with the notion of bringing in “contemporary” thinking. The “administration”, on the other hand, is associated with secrecy, economic deals and interès, circles of anonymous architects, bezhabèrie about citizens’ concerns, outdated thinking, or simply incompetence. The relationship of this model with conspiracy narratives is evident, and it is re-produced in every new civic mobilisation, gradually affirming itself as constitutive of the political reality we live in as a whole.

This conspiratorial cognitive model is indispensable for the activists. Since the logics based on bezhabèrie and interès is universally accepted, it gives a ready-made language for communicating every cause to the public (see also Vajsova, 2013). In the case of the Women’s Market this language is actively employed by the two groups that seek to conquer the public sphere: the activist architects (e.g., Bratkov, 2013) and the homeowners (Venkov, 2012b).

Measuring the punch of conspiracy narratives

Ditchev claims that (total) conspiracy theories numb the potential for resistance and action: they presume that those who are in control are all-powerful and can reorder everything as they wish (Ditchev, 2012). As nothing can be done anyway, this gives moral reprieve about one’s passivity. A conspiratorial narrative on the other hand does not posit absolute control. Therefore its impact on the subject’s capability for resistance requires investigation.

I believe that whether a narrative can lead to an active mobilization or not does not depend on the narrative itself but on the power structures in which the actors are inscribed. This discussion, however, is beyond the scope of this paper. Here I will approximate those structures and relations of power with a single variable: the social distance between the narrating subject and the protagonist of the conspiracy. By social distance I mean how much closed is the possibility for communication and interaction between the actors, how large is the gradient of power difference, and how few social and cultural codes they share (so that even if they meet and communicate, the possibility that they will understand or take seriously each other is small). Let us describe several examples at different points of the spectrum.

As I suggested, a conspiracy narrative is usually engendered as a stereotype, when there is sufficient social distance that prevents the protagonist’s own discourse from reaching the subject or from being taken seriously there. The collection of narratives here reveals that as social distance grows even larger, the critical attitudes in the narratives are replaced by resignation.

On one hand, a middle class professional would bring in utterances with a very high degree of critical performativity in her conspiracy narratives: an administrator “is failing his duty”; he “is corrupt and criminal”; or “should” do things in such and such “competent way” (Consp. 2-4, 8, 12 and Quote 3). Those narratives are just one step away from becoming public demands. Therefore mobilisation could occur if social distance is sufficiently small. On the other hand, the vendor from a marginal group does not possess the confident knowledge of “what should be” in the socially distant field of power. “Those up there” are not failing their job description; they are like that. Politicians steal and that’s it. The marginal subject is still critical, but critical of what they are, as nature.[21] The biting phrases “why do they…”, “they should…”, etc. are here substituted with still angry but passive descriptions (Consp. 1, 5, Quote 2). The narratives in fact function to further naturalise the attributes of distant actors and one’s hierarchical relation to them. At this social distance, mobilisation would occur with difficulty, but when it does, it will seek the physical replacement of “those above” with their ascribed nature. This is the stuff of revolutions.

The situation of total conspiracy theory described by Ditchev (2012) lies at the extreme, asymptotic end of this spectrum, and there indeed mobilisation is impossible. The whole society is seen as weak in relation to an infinitely distant protagonist who is so all-powerful that he orchestrates even his very opposition and resistance. The social distance here is so large that the protagonist figure has to have no physical place in this social world. It has to dissolve into a group (it seems to me that only Satan is a single protagonist with a total control) that is so mysterious that it becomes undifferentiated and abstract, such as the communist puppet-masters of the Transition.

Another general epistemological aspect of conspiracy narratives is that in comparison to an “informed account” the information about one’s own context is inflated, while the information about the social act whose explanation is sought is compressed/conflated. Compression comes from the little knowledge about the distant context. Inflation takes place as the epistemological vacuum is filled up with logics from one’s own context and discourses. Importantly, the greater the social distance between the contexts, the more expressed the compression-inflation relation. This gives us a good tool to detect relations of marginality from the characteristics of the conspiracy narratives.

Large social distance, and the associated impossibility to act, make the details of why the holders of power (public or conspiratorial) have not fulfilled their perceived obligations to the social order not only hard to comprehend, but also irrelevant. In Consp. 8 the respondent did not care whether the state settled on purpose Roma migrants in his neighbourhood, or it just turned a blind eye. He conflates the two possible realities even though the second one would be somewhat less reproachable than the first (from his point of view). By conflating them he compresses a distant context and inflates his personal truth-claim. Thus he produces a much more powerful critical position: now he is able to walk right up to the mayor of Sofia and say, “You landed these Gypsies on our hands, Mr. Sofyanski!”.[22]

Thus, the compression-inflation effect allows one to produce a stronger truth-saying/critique that is relevant to one’s conditions of existence. In Consp. 1 Roma vendors conflate the entire class of administration, power-brokers, and political elite, into one person, the mayor Boyko Borisov (who replaced Sofiyanski in 2005). This is as much a result of their poor orientation in public life (a sign of their marginality), as a rhetorical figure strengthening their “truth”, that is, “those above” are all the same and they are all involved in shoddy dealings, we don’t need to know anything more about them. The vendors picked the most visible public figure and saddled all the responsibility on him by carting all the 2.5 million euro to his personal pockets.

A strongly expressed compression-inflation relation has the drawback that the subjects could hardly employ their narratives for activist resistance to what threatens them. A large compression means that their understanding will be too inadequate and would lead them to wrong tactics. One hopes that when a group sets out to actively pursue change, it will have the opportunity and capacity to refine its rationalisations through the new interactions it gets involved in – a process which the homeowners underwent.

In conclusion, conspiratorial narratives play the role of constructing a position of critique and censure of a perceived injustice, rather than formulating a practical strategy to fight with it. This is still helpful, because truly marginalised groups internalise the public discourses about their place in the social order. At the same time they have little proficiency in the discourses of the field of power (and the public sphere) which they need to engage in, in order to produce an effective critique. For them it is not at all a trivial step to take a critical position. The conflation in a conspiratorial narrative discounts outside (power) discourses, while a strong inflation provides them with semiotic space to think through their own categories and even impose them on the powerful.[23]

I illustrate this through an example located in the scope of Consp. 5: a conversation that took place a few days after the market was closed between a Roma vendor informally selling parsley on a cardboard box out in the street and a Bulgarian pensioner. The exchange displays how the marginal subjects practice out their own categories with brilliance. When residing in their own space, with the help of inflation they easily overpower any official discourse about the urban project:

Customer, pointing towards the construction fence behind the vendor: What do you think they will make here? A shopping mall or what? [In an indignant tone:] A park?! […]
Vendor: They want to make it. But where [people] will get c h e a p, they don’t care. As if in the hypermarkets it is v e r y cheap. As if people have t h a t much money.
Customer: Everywhere a mall next to a mall! [Waving in the respective directions:] Just over there is a Lidl, over there – a Billa. Why should we be paying to foreigners? Why should we give our money to the foreigner?!
Vendor: See how much a bundle [of parsley] costs here. [25 stotinki, =0.13 euro]. Go to Billa and there this bundle costs 70 stotinki! 69 stotinki.

In this deftly crafted discursive space the market redevelopment has no sparring chance for legitimacy!

Conclusion

Defining a shorter form of conspiracy theory, conspiratorial narratives, I demonstrated that they are used in explaining local political and social situations, by virtually all social groups in the case study. Conspiratorial narratives do not stand separate. They use common vocabulary and principles of construction and thus easily connect with each other to form more complex chains. The self-similarity between elementary local and more complex grand theories means that as they are variously performed, they corroborate one another’s plausibility by reaffirming a general logic of conspiratorial thinking in society. As Fenster summarises: “We are all conspiracy theorists now” (Fenster, 2008).

In the post-socialist Bulgarian context, the principles and vocabulary of constructing conspiratorial narratives very much repeat those used to make sense of the failed Transition. I pointed out and tried to understand two ubiquitous discourses: that of interès, the private interest trampling over all duties and principles; and the consequent bezhabèrie – the universal unconcern about protecting the social order from degradation. In the post-socialist society, the conspiratorial logic based on interès and bezhaberiè is so widespread that it works as a stereotype, as a means to rationalise the behaviour of all distant social actors. This makes for a sad anthropology that sees human nature as fundamentally egoistic, cunning and predatory: when others are not looking, one is obviously doing bad things in one’s own favour.[24] Under these circumstances the logical consequence is that you should also conduct yourself like that, otherwise you would come out as naïve and helpless. Thus, the categories reify themselves. 

This article makes an attempt to de-centre and weaken the strong categories used in the literature on conspiracy theories. This undertaking is useful as it allows us to decouple the important roles and performative functions of conspiratorial thinking from their traditional attachment in the theory to special populations or extreme situations. I show that conspiratorial thinking is used by everybody when in situation of partial powerlessness. It is a tool doing several kinds of work simultaneously. It is the cheapest machinery of discursive action – the simplest device for producing understanding and the most accessible tool for critique of the social order. Through conspiratorial narratives subjects can articulate their ideological non-agreement with the reality imposed on them. Further, they can announce “their truths” in a form strong enough to resist the authority that silences them. They can stake out space for their resistance. 

Neither conspiracy theorists, nor their works, are necessarily marginal and excluded from the public sphere. We saw that professionals and middle classes use such narratives just as readily. They could even make up the language of legitimate public protest. In fact, the typical liberal protest, with its demands for fair and “functioning” democracy (rather than a “hijacked” one) is homologous to what was once seen as a bent for conspiracy thinking particular to the deviant illiberal masses (Hofstadter, 1966). Even governing institutions, when they are on the defensive, might use conspiracy narratives. It is required, however, that the subjects articulating a conspiracy narrative speak from a position of marginality on the issue at hand. Their needs have to be ignored by those in power who are considered responsible for resolving the issue. The liberal protest gathers pace when the political elites are silent about the issues of discontent.

Finally, the question arises of how to measure the social effect of the conspiratorial mode of thinking. A conspiratorial narrative creates space for one’s own truth, however, at the expense of losing details about the alleged conspiratorial context. The weight of local concerns and values is inflated, while that of the distant norms is compressed. This compression-inflation relation is more strongly expressed when the social distance between the narrator and the narrated context is larger and vice versa. On the minus side, this limits the ability of the marginalised groups for realistic understanding and action; on the plus side, it empowers them to make the first step towards critique of the social order – a non-trivial step for those most marginalised.

In conclusion, conspiratorial narratives are far from being shunned in the liberal (in this study, post-socialist only) public sphere. They are becoming important instruments for civil society and since their logics are so ubiquitous, they turn out to be the most economical means for activists to mobilise larger groups for their cause.[25] They can be employed quickly in concrete tactical battles, as with the case of the urban conflict over the fate of the Women’s Market in Sofia.

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West, Harry G. and Todd Sanders (eds.) 2003. Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Yantchev, Pavel. 2014. “Epizodi na urbaniztichen aktivizam v Sofiya – gradskite publichni prostranstva mezhdu institutsii I grazhdani [Episodes of Urban Activism in Sofia – Urban Public Spaces between Institutions and Citizens]”, Seminar_BG, 10B (accessed 12.12.2014).


[1] In fact, the only aspect that could differentiate conspiracy theory from, say, critical social theory on the epistemological level is that the first presumes a very strong dependency between intention and results. Protagonists can rarely control the highly complex reality so well, as to achieve things exactly as they planned them (Räikkä, 2009: 198). This is an old argument of Karl Popper: the task of social sciences is to search for explanations precisely for the inadvertent and unintended consequences of the social act that can never be eliminated (Popper, 2006).

[2] That is, theories that focus on explaining separate political or historical events, rather than global world control (Räikkä, 2009: 187).

[3] A totally different account deriving the conditions of possibility for the conflict from gross economic, social, and discursive transformations will be published elsewhere (Venkov, 2014).

[4] The first and second quotes were never recorded in my field notes. Model statements are reconstructed by me from the many spontaneous reactions that were quite similar within the specified social group and which are overlaid in my memory.

[5] I do not know if hypermarket chains are capable of such mutual coordination, but it is a fact that they took maximum advantage of the plans for curtailing the market. If in the previous 7 years they entirely avoided this part of the city centre, in a short period of just over two years (December 2010 - August 2013) there opened nearby seven stores from four chains: Billa, Piccadilly, Carrefour and Lidl.

[6] The architect-general of Sofia since 2005, Petar Dikov, has become an almost metaphorical figure that is employed to signify – and personify – all shortcomings of the municipal policy for almost everyone who is active in urban issues.

[7] It should be noted that the conflict cannot be conceptualised simply along ethnic/racial lines. Some of the most expressive statements in this text are not made by ‘ethnic Bulgarians’. This neighbourhood features a significant proportion of Jews as well as Armenians, and up to 1948 it was considered the Jewish neighbourhood of Sofia. Their descendants belong to the group of the home owners, and most of them are members of the association. What is included in the pejorative category “Gypsy” is also complicated and contested. Therefore it would be inappropriate to apply the scheme ‘Bulgarian majority vs. Roma minority’. The lines of conflict are complex, and above all things, not racially but socially defined. 

[8] A theory that somebody is directing a grand plan to supplant the locals of a neighbourhood in the centre of the capital city with rural Roma held so much more imaginative potential! However, it is rather reassuring for the state of affairs in Bulgarian society that for now only the construction of a shopping mall could pop out of our public imagination.

[9] Here, very stark images of the Roma as “termites” (Gypsies are filling up the houses and eating away from the inside, kept invisible by the buildings’ outer shells), and as a biological weapon employed by the authorities, come into play.

[10] It is in fact an independent ‘volk’ discovery of the process of racial ‘blockbusting’ that produced Harlem in the 1920s, as described by Neil Smith (1996: 138).

[11] For example, two innocent passers-by were killed by a building of protected status that collapsed in the city centre during, as it turned out, unlawful reconstruction works in 2006. Media revealed that workers ran away after fulfilling orders to compromise some of the building’s support columns (Bosev, 2011). The court case is still unresolved nearly 10 years later. 

[12] One of the explanations for the rise of conspiratorial thinking in Revolutionary France is in a very similar vein (Tackett, 2000: 694): revolutionaries internalised Rousseau’s idea for a single indivisible “general will” of the people and this led them to believe that any sectarian interests and opposition to it could only be the result of conspiracy plots.

[13] Here I point out a mechanism specific to the post-socialist context but in reality there are many discursive ensembles that come into play. Nor is mistrust in the isolation of public duty from private interest a local concern only. Nor are the specified dispositions necessarily the sole or the main root for the present desires for homogenisation at the Women’s Market. I only claim that they are available to subjects as cognitive resources, and that they could productively interact with current discourses and with newer, capitalist logics.

[14] See (Creed 1990) for a short discussion on ethno-cultural policies in Bulgaria of the ‘80s.

[15] A plural would be more appropriate but that does not concern us in the moment.

[16] There are testimonies that the upheavals against state socialism were motivated by ideals that were in many ways produced by the regime (e.g., Feffer, 2013). Hann (2002) suggests that everyday ideologies are signs of the success of socialist ideological regimes in transforming society, and are their only heritage surviving after 1989.

[17] This is the second and the last instance of a non-conspiratorial rationalisation in this article!

[18] Oushakine (2009) also points out the post-socialist experiences of economic polarisation and cultural fragmentation (p. 99) as productive factors for conspiracy theorising.

[19] Here I am in agreement with Comaroff and Comaroff that conspiracy theories “articulate processes of varying scale and perceptibility, translating the reified abstractions of economy and society into a dramaturgy of such ordinary human motives as desire, ambition, anger, and jealousy, even remorse” (2003: 295). I find it significant that in post-socialist Bulgaria the dramaturgy is much more limited though, to only economic rationality!

[20] Although this statement suggests instrumentality, the act of rationalising complex, chaotic or unknown causal relationships through logic that is intimate to the subject is a quite natural one. It is worth noting that this logic can also be very complex, or even steeped in expert knowledge (as in Consp. 2 or Consp. 14 – the experiential knowledge of vendors is also expert knowledge). When it has been thoroughly dwelled over (and that happens precisely when the problem is significant for the subject), it is clear and simple enough. Complex knowledge might be about the urban planning procedures in Sofia Municipality, about models and theories of the social sciences (in the case of the anthropologist constructing his narrative), or about the arcane rituals of Illuminati and Freemason societies. It is a prejudice on the part of social scientists that conspiracy theories are studied mostly in the last case.

[21] Please note that this is not the same as the subject being critical of the existence of elites or class privilege. He is not.

[22] I paraphrase this from a quote by the leaders of the homeowners. In fact they said, referring to the market as a whole, “You shitted this turd, Mr. Sofyanski, and now we’ll be cleaning it up!”.

[23] However, they shouldn’t really be seen as ‘own’ categories. As any discourse, they are ‘supplied’ to the subject who manipulates them to one or another degree. So, they could just as well be produced in realms far away from one’s own but to connect well to local grievances: this is good old hegemony (see Venkov 2012b for an illustration relevant to the market). This is why the present analysis should not be seen as a progressive defence of conspiracy narratives.

[24] I thank Ilia Iliev for this observation.

[25] An instrument, however, can be employed by any side. As the holders of power in a given society discover the sway of conspiracy narratives and learn to handle their making and validation (in a conspiracy no less), the latter become ever more central part of public life. The one clearly foreseeable victim of this process would be the liberal ideal for the possibility of a well-ordered society.

 

About the author

Nikola A. Venkov is a PhD student in the Urban Studies Unit, Dept. of Sociology, University of Sofia. He is interested in the micro-mechanics of urban development, the politics and conflicts of the diverse city in transition. His work is on the transformation of Women's Market in Sofia. He holds a PhD in Mathematics and MA in Ethnology.

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