East versus West is once again a hot topic in Romania. Or rather a superficial repositioning – which doesn’t mean that it has a lesser influence over public agenda setting – in the never-ending battle between Europeanizers (white collars, hard-boiled capitalists, entrepreneurs) and Traditionalists of all denominations (nationalists either of Interbellum persuasion or converted during Ceauşescu’s reign).
So great was the fear in January 2012, when dangerous ideas like “down with the privatizations” or “down with the IMF” abounded, that each of us gave it whatever meaning we could. And when the SLU (the Social-Liberal Union) came with the brilliant idea to fuck Băsescu preveniently, before the elections, both Europe and the Romanian political-entrepreneurial elite breathed a sigh of relief: the Eastern or the Romanian gene was in fact the one that was gnawing at the State of Law; the one corrupted to the hilt, the one tearing down the Eastern capitalist dream. Those were some obscure compulsions, not dangerous demands for radical reform. Only safe extracts came out of January’s sulfurous test tube: some Environmentalism, a neat and tidy Urbanism, a tad of culture oppressed by Traditionalists and that’s about all.
To position oneself in this new polarization is once again impossible. If you criticize the aggressiveness of the “european recommendations” rethoric, you’re in bed with the Russians and prey to a nationalistic fit. If you emphasize the autocolonization and contamination of true progressivity with cheap Neoliberal rethoric you already are suspiciously Oriental, Patriarchical, Authoritarian or, why not, even Fascist. When you criticize the two-cent nationalistic tendencies in which the new power drapes a policy every bit as austere as the previous one (they are powerless, Troika is to blame!, the eternal apology not entirely untrue since national elections are a strange thing, mostly hindering CBE’s and EC’s efforts and ideas etc.), you’re in the West’s pocket. If, in the end, they get it that you don’t belong to either camp, then you’re in the proverbial shithole: you’re either a Commie, that is to say the greatest enemy of democracy and euro-atlantic civilization, or a fool (what would a white-collar be whithout a little joke about naïve Leftists?).
How do we get out of this? We don’t really get out. However, I’ve tried to look for those points of view from which we can still talk about East versus West without necessarily playing the new cold-war game, as Hillary Clinton recently called the social and political tensions in the East. The one and only goal being: if there is a way out of the big pile of crap called “nation versus EU”, it would be the internationalization of the critique of the Union in its present state, together with the annihilation of the recent nationalistic tendencies which the technocratic EU as a partner is more than happy to incite. Two open battlefronts – an almost certain death.
Simply put, the only chance the East has left is to become a fertile antagonizing subject within an apathetic West, which doesn’t feel the need anymore to discuss the very foundation with which it traditionally boasted. We’ve already seen an incredibly primitive face at the mere threat of opening the borders for Eastern workers.
RomBulgaria. In his excellent book The New Old World (Verso, 2008), Perry Anderson was pointing to the collapse of another one of the strong contentions used in those comparisons with the USA that are so precious to Western-Europeans: the GINI ratio. America, the home of inequality – another myth torn down. Not because Americans have done something to solve their problems, but because Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU. The longer it took to integrate those two countries the lesser the Western costs for their inclusion. And the conditions of this inclusion were ideologized in the extreme. Năstase, the social-democratic founder, was the king of neoliberalism and set the trend for a whole decade. The EU integrated a comfortable “enemy”, the impoverished East, giving it a luxury lawn ticket.
What good is the East? Why did they take us in if not out of the goodness of their heart, isn’t that so? What meager compensation had we to offer them in return? And maybe it would have been better to keep the workforce separate, but still close to the EU, without integrating it. Let us now follow the consequences of the unification of the two Germanies, founding gesture of the expansion towards the East and a much easier process of transition towards capitalism, with a much wider safety net than anywhere in the former Communist bloc. The arrival of the East made possible a double extortion: a weakening of the Western trade unions and a decrease in wages. Germany’s exports became competitive not because of its unprecedented productivity boom, but for the simple reason that, having the East as a scarecrow and reserve army, it succeeded in lowering its wages (Anderson, 255ff.). Eastern Germany filled with managers in the purest American sense of the word. A new cyber-liberal generation that we would only begin to know after a decade. Between 2003 and 2007, German corporate profit grew by 37%, meanwhile, wages only by 4%.
Undeclared work. Secret CIA prisons seem a diversionist joke in comparison to the great silence surrounding a widespread practice in the West: millions of workers employed in precarious conditions or even completely under the counter. Tolerating the precarious work of immigrants is NOT just another news item, though news about “Eastern slavery” compete for the same slot with those about the “Eastern crimewave”. Another rabbit in the bag: the Western bourgeois and employees are offered a last line of defence, excessive nationalism, the old record about closing the borders (for now, just for the people, not for the capital flows). As for the rest, the state of law didn’t budge an inch in front of the evidence of torture as an accepted interrogation practice, nor of the widespread primitive exploitation of the Eastern worker. The immigrant is now tabloid. What’s left of their unions can now be found in the “social” or “debate” columns.
The ideology of leaving. When you start speaking in the name of those “who left” you’re instantly charged with Hipsterism, since, in fact, they really are “well off”, “what chance would they have had here?” and you can fill in the rest. More importantly, the ones that are abroad and still have time for facebook have, for the most part, a devastatingly conservative way of thinking. They don’t just yell “to work”, but also “let’s join the EU faster”. There are also the theories of “those hyperactive and talented that go abroad, leaving the rabble behind”. And the rabble must be whipped senseless in order to be lifted from their misery. Merkel is an Easterner, that’s it. And the immigrant-allied-with-the-employer is nothing but a more discreet European tea-party character, but a powerful one nonetheless.
Minimalist state. The same Anderson summed up very well the present situation of the EU: it’s exactly the much-coveted minimalist state. At least Hayek saw it as a consequence of democracy, his successors seem to be having serious issues with democracy itself. Democracy is nothing but a relic standing in the way. I went into a bookshop and dipped into about 4 or 5 books from different publishers which were heartily explaining how artificial, how manufactured this whole myth of democracy is. Even the usual demystifier, Mister Boia, devoted an entire booklet to this theme: “the myth of democracy”. But, with its several thousand clerks and 1% of the budget at its disposal, the European Union is the minimalist dream: it can hack and slash purely bureaucratically without any additional responsibilities.
Wellfare-EU. We mustn’t laugh our heads off when we hear new fantasies from former liberal fanatics who are now asking themselves why doesn’t the EU save the industry. The poor bastards are trying to get converted to a new belief system, let’s give them a hand. Why doesn’t the EU “nationalize” the industries? was one commentator inquiring in Ziarul Financiar (sic!). For about the same reason for which the EU doesn’t even have a central radio station – the EU is not a common voice, it is an entity that suffers like any market, in a soap-operatic manner. Markets laugh and cry all day long. Other than that, the technocrats do things that we are not equipped to understand. Sometimes they even pull a scalpel out of the hat, like they did with Cyprus, when people from all around the world rose to the defense of the idea of taxing the speculators that hide their money on the island. This might signal the beginning of a new strategy: the technocrats will threaten to nationalize and all the social-democratic and liberal progressives will stand as one against them.
Technocratic-EU. Such as it is now, EU critique sends transnational vibes only from national and nationalistic positions. Otherwise, the dissolution is at an historical high. Can we coalesce an internationalistic critique? It would be extremely difficult, again, because of some ironclad reasoning. The mantra of “public policy” is repeated ad nauseam: here, at the centre, we decide stuff that’s hard to understand by the people; the easy stuff is voted at the national level. Poverty must be acknowledged as a transnational phenomenon. Its native land is not the East, it’s the EU. We force the EU to recognize the issue of RomBulgaria or Greece and Spain as a common problem? Then we still have a chance.
Forms without substance. To the schism of a two-gear Europe we add a well-known peripheral inclination: that of the constant struggle between evolving on your own or through external conditioning. An excellent analysis of this opposition can be found in Victor Rizescu’s book “Tranziţii discursive”. The conflict is mostly known in its Lovinescu vs. traditionalists version. But it’s not that simple. Lovinescu or Zeletin had some pretty mechanistic visions and were not as preoccupied with democratic subtleties as they were later perceived to be. Need we even mention their social concerns? Forms create the substance – a fully rehashed slogan, side by side with the debate about the bureaucratic gridlock and inhibiting entrepreneurship through excess officialdom. The trouble with this kind of opposition is that it gives birth to two parties located on the same side of the fence: conservatives and neoliberals, competing to find solutions to save the ruling class.
Oligarchy and Orange Revolution. The same Rizescu brings up a forgotten but meaningful opposition. Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu’s criticism of Romanian social-democrats that joined the “fight against the oligarchy” as an excuse to ally themselves with the dominant classes. The bourgeoisie and the oligarchy are not antagonistic, says Pătrăşcanu, they are natural allies. From their liberal standpoints, Lovinescu and Zeletin see the oligarchy as a necessary step for backward countries.
This reminds me that some people attribute to a simmilar conflict, the one between millionaires and billionaires, the Orange Revolutions of the begginig of this millenium. In Romania, this fight is also known as the fight between the capitalism of the communist elite and the one belonging to the new “cleaner” capitalists, more “corporate” and more relaxed about the nation’s wealth and its integrity.
Where does this fight against the oligarchy and the moguls (already a figment of the imagination, since two of them are in prison and the third is due to appear in court) belong in the East-West equation? As an endorsment of everything that is Western monopole, as a guarantee of the investment’s respectable character. A policy as apparently naïve as it is harmful. On the other side of the fence, the remnants of the so-called Romanian oligarchy are regrouping under a liberal-nationalistic banner, practicing their inherently double-tongued discourse: pro-Western, certainly, but we also want a piece of the pie.
EU’s influence in this area was rather positive, wrote AndreiState a few months ago (here) and, for the most part, I agree with the strategic positioning that his text was proposing to the Left. But on the same strategic note, we should be aware that if we still expect a certain internationalism from the Left, it can only be a eurosceptical one. How do we remove the nationalist-extremist tumor from this euroscepticism is another question entirely and an insanely difficult one.
Being absolutely perspicuous about it, we can only state a few small and simple facts: that in their march towards “integration”, the millions of Romanians who went to work abroad, the millions impoverished by the Neoliberal speed-up in the last decade, stomped one another to the ground like cattle, under the detached gaze of the same people that delivered them their civilizing discourse. The slight pressure exerted by the EU on Romania’s corrupt political-entrepreneurial elite came at an obscene price.
1% or 20% or 30%? In the end, that 1% of the Indignados proved to be the most paralyzing form of criticism. Because we’re not in an easy fight, with an easily identifiable 1%. EU’s technocratic caste doesn’t effulge just by its indifference and its abundant paperwork, treatises and ordinances. The Troika also has an oracular way of thinking. A mysterious decision is taken and the cattle squirm around in the corral. The IMF itself started boasting a newer type of anti-austerity rethoric (intended only for Western ears: especially Spain) which can facilitate the critique of central authorities and institutions: we can criticize them with their own weapons, their own statements. Being slightly higher in numbers and more determined to defend their status, the dominant classes in their traditional form are much more coherent and hurtful than the 1%. Is the european citizen still capable of discovering this type of criticism and coming out of this 1% paralysis? A first step for the East would be to rediscover its main issues – it was a region that comprised underdeveloped countries which turned one after the other in lumpen-states, caught in all sorts of shady alliances. For the Westerners, maybe it would be time to go back to the classics and find out that, unfortunately, their problem is much much bigger than just the 1% they presently have in their sights.
The East should promote a shock rethoric of forced equalization and keep pressing on utopical issues which, let’s be honest, have been around for a while (like the European minimal wage). “European citizen” used to mean something. To be one was like being a member of an elite club. With the arrival of Romania and Bulgaria, the EU is no longer an exclusive club. That’s life, and even Poland and Hungary must give up their central-european fantasies. You have about 30 million people that came in and payed just about everything they had for the addmitance, so the confrontation must be face to face, we don’t go anymore for sermons about geographically localized deep-rooted corruption, we discuss it on the whole or not at all. If we can find Western allies who wish to denounce the disastruous effects that the European policies have on the masses, they will have to start seeing the East in a new light. And the progressive East, if there still is such a thing, will have to find its way through aggressive autocolonization and nationalistic slips.
The East-West divide is once again hot, as hot as the one between the North and the South, and not just because the German fantasy of having different bumper zones all around the European elite can no longer hold. RomBulgaria is hot also because of the convulsions stemming from the Baltique-like electric shocks inflicted upon it after 2007. We don’t know yet if they’re the final spasm before total zombification or just a little morning sickness coming from taking too many state of law classes together with sky-high bills and installments.
Inspired by wikileaks – the avalanche of more or less secret documents which told us a bunch of things that we already knew – we can now produce the work-leaks papers. Western hypocrisy regarding the exploitation of immigrants is no longer tolerable. Undeclared work is not just a news item. It’s a barbarism which the West cannot be allowed to neatly sweep under the rug.
Denmark. A classic that you’ve heard a thousand times already:
Vasile Stoica left for Denmark with his wife, Natalia, their son, and his older brother, Ioan Florin. The Romanians were brought to the country by the man behind the cleaning company JD Cleaning, Jimmy Nika. The employer has been supplying manpower for years to United Service, the second largest cleaning company in Denmark, which has thousands of contracts with the state, the regions and the municipalities. The Stoicas didn’t receive any payment for the work they had done for United Services through JD Cleaning.
Frankfurt. After building a luxury development, Romanian construction workers went through a phase of total exploitation that, fortunately, had a happy ending. After increasing media pressure, they finally received their due compensation.
“They gave us 50 euros for food and after a month’s work, from the 17th of September to the 20th of October, we received another 1.500 euro, which we had to divide amongst the 13 workers in our group. According to basic math, that month we were payed 1.09 euros an hour,” complained the Romanian worker. In a sign of solidarity, one of the owners of the newly constructed condos wrote on a placard: My exclusive home owes its existence to the exploitation of Romanian workers.(source)
Sweden. Romanians employed at blueberry picking rise up after receiving less money than agreed. The local newspapers abundantly quote the owner which “clears up” the situation – some of the slaves were more hard-working than the others:
On Wednesday, over 100 Romanians stopped working and went out into the street. They claim that the owner promised them 50 Euros for every 50 Kilos of berries picked daily. Instead, they received the same amount for 70 kilos.
Nonetheless, the owner, Naturbemanning och Brygg AB, Mika Riikonen, claims that the Romanian workers are the only group that didn’t fulfill its berry quota. He stresses the fact that a Thay group picks an average of 215 kilos per day and that the Romanians have been given false information at home. “Honestly, they’re lazy,” he stated.(source)
Exploitation takes even subtler forms. When education and volunteering come together, unpayed work comes also into play, and in one particular case in Norway the results were tragic (more here).
Simina Guga has an excellent piece about the route exploitation took for some Romanian workers in the CzechRepublic. The affair begins with a Romanian recruitment firm and ends with a hoax at the destination, after a short interval of intense work:
A month after these events, things took a similarly brutal turn for another group of 14 Romanians isolated in a mountainous region of the country. They threatened to cease work and go to the police after 58 days for which they received only 6 euros a week for food. The boss gave each one of them 200 euros and promised to pay them the rest in the following days. After only a few hours the workers were told there’s no more work for them in that area and they were hauled into a bus driven by a Czech driver that didn’t tell them what was going on or where they were being taken. After a 4 or 5 hour drive, they were abandoned on the side of the road, near Prague, in the middle of the night.(source)
Dickens comes back with a vengeance:
Several Romanian children, many under the age of nine, were forced to work in the most dire of conditions at a farm in Worcester, Great Britain. The seven children, part of a group of 50 Romanian workers that were harvesting leeks, were discovered by the authorities last week, announced The Independent on Sunday. The minors were forced to work all day long, thinly dressed, when outside temperatures plunged to almost 0 degrees Celsius.(source)
In the Netherlands, sequestered on a farm:
The police and work inspectors from the Dutch city of Someren descended at a farm to free the 38 Romanians that were working like slaves alongside some Polish and Portuguese enduring the same conditions, reports BN Destem. Upon arrival, the owner had seized their identity cards and the barraks they were living in didn’t even have windows. Although they were promised 13 euros an hour, the workers received only 50 euros a week, while working from dawn to dusk on an asparagus plantation.
An interesting case of interstate dispute. The exploited immigrant workers have ended up being a business and sabotage strategy, and the Belgian criticism proves how openly we work nowadays with the “Eastern advantage”:
Two Belgian cabinet ministers have announced that they are filing a suit at the EC against Germany for the poor working conditions and extremely low wages of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants who work in Germany’s abattoirs, reports the Belgian daily Le Soir, in its online edition. The two cabinet ministers, the minister for the economy, Johan Vande Lanotte, and the one for labour, Monica De Coninck, have decided to lodge a complaint against the German authorities based on various testimonies of workers, trade unions and local land-authorities. “We will demand that the EC put an end to these practices. We’re not looking for conflict with another nation, it’s just a question of denouncing these outrageous practices,” stated Vande Lanotte and De Coninck, quoted by Le Soir. The two have taken this decision following a series of accusations brought by several actors operating on the meat market in Belgium. “Many of these enterprises have begun restructuring or relocating to Germany, because they can’t keep up with this competition. One of these firms doesn’t cut the meat in Belgium anymore, it splits the carcass in four and sends the pieces to Germany. There, the workers that carve the meat have the smallest salaries and it’s more profitable. These practices are unacceptable,” remarked one of the ministers. According to Le Soir, Germany obeys the European directives in the matter, accepting the detachment of workers form Eastern Europe, but there are also numerous fraudulent practices that result in thousands of labourers working in deplorable conditions, not provisionally, as stated by the law, but permanently, through many fictitious firms. Moreover, in some economic sectors, like the meat sector, but also in horticulture, vegetable farming and in the wood industry, Germany doesn’t have a minimal wage. “As such, everything goes. There’s no law being broken, because there is no law at all,” denounces Vande Lanotte. (mediafax)
Translated into English by Alexandru Macovei