Ideology has several speeds and very little memory: in July 2012, when the alliance between the Social Democrats and the Liberals organized a referendum on the dismissal of president Băsescu, a segment of the media supporters of the then president, journalists or public, mainly right-wing, intellectuals, urged the boycott of the referendum, while philosophizing on the ineptitude of popular tyranny in general, and of plebiscite forms in particular. In January 2012, when a population strangled by austerity measures had suddenly come out into the street in scary numbers, these same intellectuals and journalists loyal to the power had described the protesters as “boorish” and “violent and inept ghetto rats”. Six years later, at the demonstrations of August 2018 against the Social-Democratic government, in a quasi-symmetrical situation, but with another government in power, the same intellectuals and journalists use an uplifting propagandistic language to describe demonstrators.
The most significant contradiction in the way to codify the demonstrations in recent days in Bucharest and other cities of the country is perhaps the completely new light in which the term diaspora appears in the controversial public and anti-PSD discourse. Usually, the term designates, in an implicit colloquial way, the urban and educated minority of Romanian emigration abroad. This time, the diaspora, which appears as the main actor and protest organizer (although disputes about who initiated and who is taking the initiative still persist, because real mobilization on social networks, grassroots and party mobilization mingle somewhat indistinctly) is a term that for the first time wishes to include two categories at opposite symbolic poles: both those Romanian migrants perceived as ‘honourable’, over-qualified and too honest to be able to fulfil their destiny in an unprivileged and debased country (having such relatives abroad is an old source of pride and symbolic validation), as well as those driven away by poverty and lack of any livelihood options, who work hard – those previously referred to with the scornful “strawberry pickers”.
This sounds very nice. The problem is that the latter category, though probably comprising around 4 million people, whose relocation makes Romania the second country in the world after Syria in terms of growth in the emigration rate, has not been a subject of interest for the mainstream political press, nor for the voices of liberal or conservative ideology; and that now, although invoked en masse in order to multiply the ranks of anti-PSD protesters numerically and rhetorically, the situation of these people tends to be all the more unclear, as they are confounded with or hidden behind the former category. When they do not simply go as ‘the best of us’, the specifics of the conditions of their departure – the lack of resources to live on -, and particularly the specifics of their condition at destination – exploitation and slavery for the majority -, seem to evaporate completely. Not only is it not made clear enough that the cumulative policies of post-communist governments have consistently contributed to the economic disaster that affects an enormous percentage of Romania’s population, as such an analysis and supposition would put other ruling parties and coalitions since 1990 on the guilt list and would boycott the unilaterally politicized narrative about corruption, defined in legal terms by a single party, the PSD – a narrative, which is expected to explain this failure on a historical scale. Moreover, a new confusion tends to further increase the class division among migrants, which is largely generated by higher education – degrees and qualifications that ultimately mean an undeniably greater freedom of decision. The confusion is between the principle that all those who work deserve respect, rights and political representation, regardless of the nature of their work – an elementary principle, but far from being the traditional belief of the pro- or anti-PSD right -, and the fact that most of the ‘diaspora’ works under exploitative and slavery-like conditions, stripping them of basic dignity. Illegally-employed construction workers in Germany, women workers exploited on Sicilian plantations and those caring for the elderly in Austria do not work under the same conditions of dignity as physicians or engineers, even if they left Romania looking for less miserable pay checks and less disintegrated public institutions.
I cannot appreciate how many of those present at the ‘diaspora protest’ on 10-12 August are truly Romanians who live and work abroad. But regardless of the number, the absence from the square or from the cloud of activist discourse in the press or on Facebook enveloping the protests, of any demands that would address the very concrete economic and political issues that led to the massive labour force emigration, as well as the issues encountered by Romanian workers abroad, could suggest that the bottom layer labour diaspora is as physically absent from anti-PSD protests, as it is little represented by their political discourse. Just that such a conclusion is not necessarily correct.
So far, the Romanian diasporas, or segments of it, have not organized themselves politically in a coherent manner, so as to turn the roots of the phenomenon into a major political topic, and have not even become a discursive force to combat its effects and to force their own government to negotiate better working conditions in their countries of residence. And, in light of their electoral choices from abroad, or the relatively low degree of self organization, suggest, there is no convincing evidence that they would stand behind a left-wing party, to the left of PSD, in their homeland. The leader of one of the Romanian diaspora groups, who passed at some point through the organizers of the 10-12 August demonstrations, appears on the front page of his organization’s website wearing traditional attire and saying that the things they promote are ‘Romanian values’, ‘Romanian spirituality’, and ‘Romanian capitalism’. Of course, neither the Federation of Romanians Abroad, he leads, nor the League of Romanian Students Abroad – another organization of the ‘diaspora’ in its elitist version, are grassroots organizations, but rather, emanations from party ranks and the business environment. but they might have a chance to coalesce a large enough number of Romanians in the diaspora around themselves in order to appear as speaking in the name of Romanians abroad.
However, no party or civil society organization openly claimed to have organized these protests. Some of them, however, have been more or less vaguely associated with the slogans of resistance, while one of the core activities of the resist movement was the campaign by the USR’s party to collect signatures from all counties in the country for a legislative initiative to prohibit persons with criminal convictions from occupying public positions. No one has assumed responsibility for the demonstrations, because no opposition party has the organizational force to do it, but especially because of the very vague nature of the claims, essentially reducible to “down with PSD!”, has coagulant consequences in this phase: it brings together all the old and new categories of dissatisfaction, from the old-time anti-Iliescu sentiments to those of employees struck by the recent ‘fiscal revolution’ initiated by PSD, a ‘revolution’ that transferred tax responsibilities from l the employer to the employee, thus reducing, in six months, the income of almost half of the Romanian employees.
‘Anti-PSDism’ thus has countless colours, although the language in which it is expressed, for the most part, is a revolt against the criminal corruption of party members. But some opposition parties likely hope to capitalize on this vague space it delineates and the emerging absence of concrete and consensual demands. Such parties do not have real political programmes to oppose PSD’s governing programme, and also, unsurprisingly, share with PSD a long history of government political alliances, as well as numerous nomadic members who easily move from one party to another, and who have, in particular, and sometimes in a decisive manner, contributed to the same types of neoliberal and anti-salary policies adopted by the PSD these days.
Just in the last two years of government, despite a serious economic growth in recent years, PSD has managed to make more obvious than ever its alliances with capital, hungry for cheap labour and amenable tax policies, to further weaken categories of workers already struck by neoliberal labour law, to invest more public money in the repressive apparatus and in good relations with the Romanian Orthodox Church, to hit the cultural sector and scientific research (which it obviously dislikes) and, in general, to make the subordination and fragility of the institutions of the Romanian state and its self-sabotaging mechanisms even more visible. In the meantime, the policies of the previous governments have remained intact, with their disastrous anti-union legislation, the unitary taxation system, the costly purchases of expensive weapons of war, the still enigmatic force of a giant security and intelligence apparatus, and, of course, very generally, a countrywide project of social dumping – cheap and low-skilled labour, and the exploitation of natural resources.
- However, even in the absence of coherent, left-wing criticisms of the PSD having reached the political mainstream, the are most likely among the dissatisfied and protesters people who would vote for a left-wing party critical of PSD policies if such a party existed. The idea that anti-PSD protests would simply be motivated by neoliberal reflections is, for the time being, a dangerous generalization. Dangerous, not only because it risks alienating a potential electorate that may wake up to being called ‘fascist’, though they are known to be enraged by the lack of income, but also because it risks missing the re-composition of political fields, ideologically and at the level of socio-economic strategies. In this phenomenon unfolding under our eyes, nationalist-conservative elements (anti-political correctness, basically) mingle, both in the camp of PSD supporters and media allies, and in the opposition, with elements of criticism of neo-liberalism, sometimes even with rudiments of anti-American or anti-EU anti-imperialist rhetoric, or with resentment toward international financial organizations and others.
Eclecticism as a form of combining practical and discursive adaptation to the new face of capitalism after the 2008 crisis and its disastrous social effects is not just a Romanian phenomenon. In the wake of the treacherous social-democratic parties (already a tradition of several decades!), for several years already various parties in Europe have been experimenting with combinations of economic ‘protectionist’ policies and reactivations of socially conservative sensitivities or vice versa. From this point of view, the PSD, which embraces a nationalist style in recent years, has shown that it is on the wave and ready for any kind of transformation necessary for survival. But PSD was not the only Romanian party that had shown interest in flirting with anti-LGBT, anti-feminist and traditionalist-religious conservative forces, because other parties, especially the PNL, overcame what appeared to be the new potential of political legitimacy by appealing to anti-political correctness voices.
At the same time, however, eclecticism is not just ideological. More than a superficial and strategic hybridization at the level of discourse, internal social struggles take place within PSD between different economic and social visions, neoliberal or, on the contrary, closer to Keynesianism. These struggles are of unequal forces and can end up with different economic and social policies, as illustrated by the discontinuous policy landscape of the past two years, when the government substantially increased the minimum wage, while reinforcing the foundational structure of an economy based on progressive exploitation and precariousness.
The Romanian society neither seems to have a problem with increasing military expenditures, with Romania’s ambitions to be NATO’s deserving novice, ubiquitous in any international rampage and always ready to buy armaments, nor with the growth of the domestic repressive apparatus. In this context, the PSD seems to remain the party with the greatest capacity to organize this authoritative anti worker resettlement, and to combine, through a unique but always changing recipe, anti-salary measures, discrimination between employees in the public and private systems, increasing the economic benefits to the more favoured or more disadvantaged social groups, and a reinvented and flexible nationalism. The PSD, however, continues to make incoherent and circumstantial efforts, depending not least on internal party dynamics, in order to build or strengthen a social base to supplement its traditionally aging and declining electorate.
If there is a battle between big parties, it will probably be for the reconnection, at the level of language, of what it means to be nationalist, patriotic, European, and in order to determine who the people are. Until then, a field of struggle that would be worth exploring a little more to understand the present situation and its mutations is that of the inter- and trans-party forces that stimulate or channel these mutations.
This article was translated from the Romanian by Ana Gurau.
Veronica Lazăr is a researcher in the history of political thought and Enlightenment studies.