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Eastern Europe as a periphery: The case of Romania

vasile-ernu1Romania’s swan song or a few thoughts on the disappearance of the Romanian state

Although I have a degree in philosophy and I coordinate, alongside my colleagues, an online platform devoted to social critique, political and ideological analyses from a Leftist perspective, I am not a theorist. I am a writer and a product of the Communist and Postcommunist East (I lived in the USSR, Moldova and Romania), I keep a close watch on everything that happens in this area and I wholeheartedly participate in all the local undertakings. In the following I will try to tell you a story, to knit together a few ideas about the country of which I am a citizen: Romania. I hope that the thoughts that follow will help us better understand what is happening in Eastern Europe, at the “periphery of capital”, taking as a point of departure the concrete case of Romania. And the story goes like this…

Where do we begin to understand the Motherland?

If you want to have a minimal understanding of Romania, I have a few pieces of advice to give you. First of all, I would recommend you not to read the mainstream press, not to watch the news and most of all, not to speak with the intellectuals of the establishment. You won’t find out anything important from them, at most, they will deliver you an uninterrupted string of clichés taken from the book of the dominant power. Since they’re a universal problem, I have nothing to say about the politicians. If you want to understand anything about Romania you’d better talk to your cab driver, the doorkeeper, the beggar sitting at the corner of the street, the people shopping at the local market, but above all, you’d better visit the watering holes in the small towns and villages. The simple folk there will tell you in a nutshell, in their lavish, though somewhat vulgar language, about the major problems they face and the harsh reality of the country. They are the only ones that can paint an accurate picture of the Romanian reality, while the political, intellectual and media elite are totally disconnected from reality.

But if you really want to have an insight into the deepest Romania possible, visit a church during one of the Orthodox saints’ holly relics processions that take place in fall. Once you arrive you will see a huge queue, spreading for several miles, all the way from the Metropolitan Church to the People’s House (the building of the national parliament, erected by Ceauşescu). There you will witness a very harsh reality indeed: tens of thousands of people standing for days in an endless line just to touch a corpse in order to implore him to bring them an ounce of happiness. Desperate people stand with their backs turned to the country’s Parliament, while their hopeful eyes are fixed on this mummified corpse. When politics has been dissolved, dismantled, when the country has been torn to pieces, the economy privatized and sold for parts, when work itself has become a privilege, simple folk have nothing to turn their eyes to but mere relics.

About the last heartbeats before the death of a country

But first, let us take its pulse. Recently, we had a census which had a dire outcome: to this very day, we don’t have any definitive results. And the ones that we do have are totally inconclusive. A state that doesn’t know how or isn’t able to count its own citizens cannot or maybe doesn’t even deserve to exist anymore. The citizen of a country is, in fact, the very pulse of the respective country. When the state, the power that rules a country, doesn’t know how to take its own pulse, its institutions must be in an advanced state of degradation. The state might even be brain dead without anybody realizing it. Not being able to take your own pulse, this minimal “biopolitical” act, being able to assess the state of your own socio-political organism, means being incapable to reflect and take any decision about the state in which you’re in. In such a context, when the socio-political organism cannot fulfill its most elementary functions, it seems that only somebody from outside can come and take its pulse in order to assess and diagnose the situation of the political body called Romania. If we take a closer look at the socio-political body of Romania, we see a convulsing organism that heralds its complete and total demise, because it has been brain dead for some time now, without the external clinician pronouncing it so. But why?

Who takes our pulse?

When the state cannot take its own pulse, meaning that it cannot count its own citizens, it needs somebody from the outside to do it for him. And in our global context, there will always be those who are eager to do it, because, although Romania has the stench of a decomposing carcass, any civilized man or institution knows that, in today’s market, even a corpse can become a commodity. The fact is that such institutions can be found right here, in our midst, in our own social, political and economic body, and they are expert at taking our pulse, that is, counting us. The most important, precise and certain information about us, about the majority of this country’s citizens can be found not at the dying institutions of the Romanian state, but at the multinational enterprises. Such a multinational economic institution knows about the citizens of this country much more than an institution of the Romanian state specifically designed to do this should know. For example, in Romania (but nowadays this applies to almost all the countries in the world, just that here, at the periphery, it’s much easier to discern it), your bank or your insurance company know not just everything there is to know about you, but also something extra. They know not only what is happening to us right now, but they have pretty good estimates about what’s going to happen to us in the near future. It’s not the Matrix and not a mere metaphor, but reality pure and simple.

The delicate thing about this situation is not just the fact that they know more about us than the State which is paid from our own pockets to do it, but that, lately, they have “longer arms” than the state and, more often than not, the institutions of the state are subordinated to them (pay close attention to the meetings between the leaders of the IMF and government officials or to the way in which corporate lobby manages to influence national legislation).

Let us take an example: the Labour Code. The law which existed in Romania was a pretty good one and it protected the employee. That being the fact, they started a whole propaganda campaign, talking all day long about how the owner is oppressed and crushed by the workers, because the law restrains him. And in his turn, the worker cannot move freely on the labour market. There is an urgent need to make the law more flexible, or so they said. And there came a new government that put a new labour bill on the table. The union representatives objected saying that it doesn’t represent them and it puts the workers at a disadvantage. The Employers’ Association objected, saying that this new labour code doesn’t represent them. But then, if this law doesn’t represent the employers nor the employees, who does it represent? And just like that, we found out that this law, this new labour code, was drafted and put forward by none other than The Foreign Investors’ Council. The law was not created for the benefit of the local employers and workers, but for the benefit of the big corporations. Nowadays, laws are made to order and in favour of a very small political and financial elite.

But there is an even more cynical institution, the IMF, whose role is to give a final diagnostic and take whatever decision is necessary and useful for its own sake, an institution that has complete control over the dying corpse of this country: a social and political body in the final stages of its disease, actually, a dying body, which has to be sold piece by piece in order to please those who kept it on IVs until now. Why is a brain-dead body-state kept on IVs and who has to gain by this?

The Power in conflict with the alcohol

Lately, Romania is witnessing a brutal smearing campaign directed against its people, initiated by its president and supported by the local media and cultural establishment. It seems that the people cannot rise to the level of the dominant class because they are a bunch of lazy drunkards.

Actually, this is a very very old tradition and it’s not a specifically Romanian one. The Power always wants to present itself as a rational entity that is both organized and responsible in relation to the population over which it reigns. Hence, the Power is doing its duty by being organized and acting rationally, in contrast with a population that is irrational, inebriated and lazy. The Press reports and the president and its prime-minister support: while president Băsescu and the institutions of the state were fighting the unprecedented floods that swept the country “the villagers were sitting at the local pub, drinking,” and while the institutions were making every effort they could to contain the snow storm, “the villagers were paving the way towards the local saloon”. Even worse, some have the audacity to die during winter because of the alcohol: apparently, the vodka was too cold.

This kind of political treatment is specific to colonial powers which are totally disconnected from the population they rule, control and exploit and which assume a civilizing, “reformatory” role. The wider the divide between the Power and its citizens, the more radicalized the two camps are: the power becomes even more “rational and wise”, while the people are “lazier and more irrational” than ever. The alcohol abuse charge (in other contexts, drug abuse) is one of the most widespread techniques used by the authorities all over the world. And it is a very simple one: the drunkard is a low life, he is irrational, his judgement is “clouded”, he is irresponsible, uncivilized and he must be controlled. He mustn’t be given any rights or responsibilities. Whatever happens, the dipsomaniac is guilty: meaning that in terms of the power relationship between them, the drunkard is at a disadvantage in front of the “sober” man.

In our case too, the power, which exhibits a profoundly colonialist mentality, only represents itself and its own interests, while the people are “lazy and drunk” and are not allowed to have their own needs and demands. The people have no legitimacy, they have no moral right to have any aspirations, desires, privileges. Therefore, for a population with “clouded judgement”, only the “lucid power” is entitled to make any decision and has the legitimacy needed to determine its future.

In contrast to the villages, in the cities, the authorities used to invoke the presence of other dangerous substances that can “cloud the judgment” of the urban inhabitant. The people better not get any ideas about organizing themselves and rising up because then surely they are nothing more than “some addicts”! Why are they selling drugs in the University Square? You already know the answer. What the powers that be don’t know is that they cannot produce as much “weed” as we can “smoke”. And it won’t be a “peace pipe” we’ll be sharing, much like the peasants who might be too “lazy” to shovel their way out of their houses now, but come spring, when the snow has melted and they’ll see their “drunken” neighbours’ frozen bodies lying around on the ground, they won’t think twice about picking up their pitchforks…There were other such cases around 1907…

Why doesn’t the head of the IMF drink?

Two characters don’t drink in the Orthodox universe: the Power (at its core) and the foreigner. On these lines, do you remember the Communist folklore? If five Romanians or Russians drank alcohol and one of them didn’t get drunk, do you know what they used to say about him? That he’s from the secret police. Why? Because the person that shirks from the collective ritual alcoholic consumption, which implies a certain degree of intoxication, is regarded by the people as a possible representative of the authorities, the powers that be. The Power must be awake, in order to have control. The secret police man was and still is a centre of power, a representative of the control the power exerts. And in this particular geographical space, power has always been perceived as a foreign, external element, that God must save you from. Hence, in an Orthodox society, not to drink means that you are a representative of the Power who wants to have control over everybody.

There’s also the category of foreigners that don’t drink. A priest, for example, would be immediately suspected of being “schismatic” or, at best, “popish”, if he wouldn’t drink alcohol, and that would make him a total stranger to the local customs and an outsider.

I kept looking for a better example and recently, I encountered the perfect one: the case of the head of the IMF delegation in Romania. It is the perfect example because it reunites the foreigner and the authority in a single non-alcoholic flask. The story: Jeffrey Franks is seen as a shindig with some villagers in the mountains…He is asked if he had fun and if he drank alongside the villagers. He replies: “I’m a Mormon. I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t smoke. My conscience is clean.” Here we can clearly see two radically different cultures. His conscience, unlike the one of the people who drink alcohol, is clean. And only his conscience? Yes, because even if he wouldn’t have been a Mormon, Jeffrey Franks wouldn’t have been able to consume alcohol or hallucinogenic substances with the “natives” because he represents the essence of the hegemonic power of our days. He must show himself to be a centre of rationality and power in an unruly, irrational and somewhat shaky world, n’est-ce pas? He a symbol of control, and control is always clear-headed, painfully so. Doesn’t this remind us of the colonial rhetoric? The lazy and inebriated Redskins, who didn’t know how to organize themselves, how to profit from their resources and enter the “civilized world” and who had to be helped and put in order by the white man, the civilized, Christian and educated man etc.? “Aided”, “assisted” to the point of extinction or total dependency?

The IMF doesn’t drink because it is our clear mind, the one that thinks and decides for us. Drink yourselves away: the IMF is keeping watch over you! So the slogan would go. But the answer came swiftly from the first comment given at the bottom of the article about Franks: “It would have been better if he said that he was completely pickled!” And he is right, because if he would have been “pickled”, simple folk would have perceived him as being the same as them, joined for better or worse, someone who can be depended upon. In this case, the man on the street understood better than anybody what is “the deal” with this Jeffrey Franks-IMF character: the local custom says you cannot trust a man who doesn’t drink. He will betray you and use you the first chance he gets.

When a state is dying or why is there the need for a transplant? Who’s performing it and who stands to gain from it?

In order to answer such a question I wouldn’t direct my attention to the politological and philosophical treatises, but in an entirely different direction. I would look for the answer in the medical field.[i]  Do you remember how, in the ’60, the most important thinkers of the Post-industrial era were proclaiming the imminent death of everybody on the planet? While man was doomed to extinction, medicine was making some astonishing progresses. In the years known as the “sputnik generation” some researchers were inventing a new field of medicine, like AIC (anaesthesia and intensive care, called in some countries “reanimatology”), while others were studying the different stages of death, and others still were working around the clock developing transplant techniques for the major organs of the body. The politicians and political scientists of the era were aware of none of these things. And why should they have been?

The surgeons of this time knew they couldn’t transplant organs from a corpse. The fundamental question they were asking themselves was: how can we get the organs from a “fresh” body, one which is still alive? Medicine, of course, had known this for some time: you cannot remove an organ from a dead body, the individual needs to be in a coma de passé. It’s a known fact: a human being in this kind of state can go on living only if he is connected to all sorts of machines that artificially stimulate his breathing and his circulation (the technical knowledge required for this kind of procedures is also invented in this period). People in such a state have no brain activity, but their hearts and their lungs are artificially maintained. The death of the brain comes from the complete cessation of circulatory function and it is irreversible. Traditionally, as we are well aware, a man is considered dead when he is not breathing anymore and his heart is not beating, he doesn’t have a pulse for a longer period of time and his vital organs have already began to degrade, meaning that tissular necrosis has started. However, with the development of reanimation techniques, people realized that death is not a process strictly related to the absence of a pulse or a heartbeat. In this context, alongside the old concept of biological death, there appears a new one, the cerebral death. Cerebral death has been defined as “an irreversible coma with the cessation of all reflexes. It is an irreversible process caused by neuronal necrosis, followed by the gradual decrease in blood flow.”

Since transplant techniques are created simultaneously all around the world, they give birth to a wave of protests and debates which prompt Harvard Medical School to settle the problem in 1968: alongside the classical tests to establish the death of the body, there is a novel one called –  whole brain death. Cerebral death/brain death and biological death are the acknowledgement of the same event: death. But, even if they are dead, the organisms diagnosed in the first and second cases have completely different characteristics: from the brain dead one you can excise organs for transplant, while from the biologically dead one you can’t. And in order for these transplant procedures, which stirred a lot of protests at the time, to become “normal”, they implemented a set of laws which give the physicians the right to use the organs of the “clinical dead” for transplant. Obviously, before this time, there were no legal regulations regarding this kind of procedure.

But what has this medical tale have to do with us and with the death of the State? If we look at the political history of the post communist countries (but it holds true also for the former colonies), we see an astounding resemblance between the medical techniques and the economic, social and political engineering techniques that were used on the political body of these countries. In 1989, when it was proclaimed that the whole political body is convulsing, announcing its imminent death, they weren’t talking about a biological, but rather a cerebral death. When the Communist political body became unable to take its own pulse, there came a foreign power which promptly diagnosed it: transition, meaning brain death. What does a physician do in such a case? I’ve already said it: he keeps the body breathing and pumping blood, while transferring its organs to other political bodies.

The IMF and the World Bank & co have fulfilled and still fulfill the same function as the transplantologist: on the one hand, they pump money in order to maintain the circulatory and respiratory functions of the brain dead state and, on the other, they orchestrate an ample process of removal of all the vital organs of the body-state (from the control over the haematic circuit – the bank, to that over the kidneys, tissues, etc. – factories, energy networks, railways, etc.) and their transfer to the political bodies that have the economical and political control over these political brain dead states.

The bad news is that, with this last crisis, this political and economical transfer is expanding, taking over states which seem to be in a better physical condition, meaning at the brink of cerebral death.

If we look at the case of Greece in particular and the way it was treated by the big financial institutions, the great problem of the state-interventionists/transplantologists is how to build a legal framework which would allow them not to fall in the already obsolete category of “theft” and “political assassination” (let’s not go to war in order to conquer a state, but get it, through all sorts of financial engineering techniques, in a state of cerebral death). In other words, nowadays, the greatest challenge that those who hold the real power and deal with economic transplantology have to face is how to legalize this transfer of wealth, this economical organ transplant (but also a natural resources transplant) in order for it to feel and seem “natural” and to wipe out all signs of the “crime”. The last big challenge great capital will have to face is building a cemetery for all those States that will be “relieved” of all their vital organs and pronounced “biologically dead”. The State Cemetery is the new upcoming project.

How did we end up here?

In the last two decades, we witnessed the collapse of the state’s institutions coupled with an unprecedented fight against the state itself. Our parents, who lived in the ’50s and ‘70s, were building the infrastructure of this country, from roads to factories and from dispensaries to cinema halls and stadiums. That generation (and everything that it built) became a donor-generation for the social, political and economical life of the postcommunist period. Beyond ideology, this is the cynical and tragic reality. What that generation built in a year we haven’t been able to do in two decades. On those human and economical resources, on this social reality we fed (after 1990) to the point of exhaustion without putting anything in its stead. The little that was built after 1990 has been sold or given away with incredible fervour to people which had no contribution whatsoever to this wealth. Instead of goods producing factories we have malls, instead of transport ships we have luxury yachts and our railroads are being sold for scrap iron. Schools and hospitals are closing down because they’re not profitable. The only truth left is profit. This is the intimate belief and the daily experience of every citizen who just came out of Communism. Our only real accomplishment is the complete destruction of social cohesion. We ripped out our last ounce of social sensibility which led to the disappearance of all political meaning. And so, we have transformed everything into a ghetto: huge social ghettos and small luxury ghettos, the same way the population of this country has been divided into two groups: a big one, belonging to the “evil parasites, uncivilized and inefficient,” and a small one, belonging to the “good and honest citizens, both civilized and efficient.”

The dreams children were having in the seventies, of becoming astronauts, doctors, teachers and engineers are nowadays regarded as being obsolete and ridiculous. Most of them have given up their painfully earned skills and professions, picking up all sorts of phantasmagorical jobs (advertising, PR, marketing, etc.). The only dream left for those who are now parents themselves is to have access to loans in order to acquire stuff they will never truly need.

We fought for capitalism until we have nothing left to sell but our souls. Worse, we went even farther and borrowed ourselves on behalf of the future generations. When they’ll come into this world, they’ll be shackled by their parents’ debts. And so, step by step, we have become the slaves that give birth to innocents straight into serfdom.

When the living and the dead fulfill the same political function

At the last elections, we discovered a huge list of dead citizens appearing as active voters. When the dead have the same social function in the state as the living we are in a non-political space. If we want to understand this communion between the living and the dead in the Eastern political space we don’t actually have to read political and philosophical treatises. For the general Eastern context, we just have to read Gogol’s novel-poem Dead Souls. Whether we like it or not, we are part of the same Gogolian socio-political paradigm. And if we are interested in the specific case of Romania, we need to direct ourselves towards Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. From Gogol we know a very interesting fact: as do the living souls, the dead ones have a very important economic role. The dead can literally “make” a man. Who is a “real” man? One that has proprieties, estates, a fortune that gives or buys him power, which, in its turn, makes him even wealthier than before. The “dead souls”, those who aren’t among us anymore, have this special power. The whole novel is about how Pavel Ivanovici Cicikov procures the “dead souls” of the deceased peasant bondman, who were still present in the fiscal records. In its present Romanian version: the “dead souls” are voting in order to decide Romania’s fate. From beyond their graves, the dead exercise a social and political function which the living don’t want to perform anymore. To crown all: the “dead souls” are more alive than the people’s representatives or even the country’s elected and suspended president (who chose not to show up at the last referendum).

Callousness, social in-sensitivity or about the lonely whale

We have derailed, devastated, destroyed and sold almost everything. The end result of these processes, which we accomplished with a morbid and idiotic enthusiasm, was an unprecedented fragmentation and dissolution of the social fabric. When a workshop or a factory are torn down, when a library or a cinema vanish into the blue, when a road or a bridge collapse, there’s an entire vivid, real world that is torn to pieces. It is a world full of life that is giving up everything without getting anything in return. In the end, this kind of ruin and fragmentation give birth to one of the most tragic social phenomena ever: the social in-sensitivity and callousness that make social life impossible and, ultimately, lead to complete political death.

The story of our Romanian postcommunist society is a lot like the tale of the 52 Hertz Whale. It is the tale of the loneliest whale in the world, because it has no family, no friends and doesn’t belong to any group of whales. It swims hopeless through the oceans. It swims alone, seeking another whale, all along “singing” a set of sounds made of the same six “cries” which never last more than six seconds at a time. It’s her “swan song”, because no other whale can hear her. She is sentenced to die alone. But why? Because it is the only whale in the world which emits sounds on a 52 Hz frequency, all the other whales communicate in a spectrum between 12 and 25 Hz. No sound it’ll ever make will be heard by the other whales, none of its utterances can have a reply. Biologist disagree on the subject: some say it’s a hybrid, some that it’s some sort of mutated whale, and others maintain that it is still young and “hasn’t found its voice yet.”

Our hope would be that this last argument is the right one: we are too young as a society and we haven’t found our social voice yet. But, maybe we reached this degree of loneliness, social fragmentation and insensitivity because each and every one of us is uttering his message on a different frequency, so we cannot hear one another, nor communicate in order to politically and socially organize ourselves. Form our knowledge of history and millennia of political thought, man expires most easily out of a lack of social life, therefore, we have the most urgent need of social sensitivity, the kind that creates social life and leads to the formation of political life, in the absence of which we are no longer human. The question is: how do we tune our voices so they vibrate on a frequency we can understand and communicate with one another?

How can a dead mother give birth or how can there be a happy ending to the cerebral death called transition?

Here is a final tale which, in the best case scenario, could also happen to us. And it goes like this: on April 19th 1993, not far from San Francisco, Trisha Marshall, a young mother of four, broke into a retired man’s house in order to steal his money. Unfortunately, the old man was home and, in the purest American style, took a rifle and shot the young mother in the forehead, after which he called the police. The police came, took the body to the hospital, and the doctors there determined that Trisha Marshall was “brain dead”. They also discovered traces of alcohol and cocaine in her blood and, unexpectedly, that she was four months pregnant. When her parents and friends found out, they insisted that the physicians find a solution to save the baby. Despite the very high costs of such a procedure, the doctors fought for more than three months to keep her body in suspended animation. After countless efforts, after three months and a half to the day, on August the 3rd, Daius Marshall was born through a caesarean section and was taken home by his grandparents. After just a few minutes, the mother was disconnected from the machines and was pronounced biologically dead.

Still, this is a happy-ending: there is death, but there is also birth, there’s desperation, but there’s also hope. The one born out of the brain dead’s womb could be our last hope, the only one that could still save us.

The end of protests or how to prepare a “Molotov cocktail”

Alas, the child has to have an education and we must teach him a few things about politics. For example: how to prepare a Molotov Cocktail. Do you know how to prepare a Molotov cocktail? It’s very simple. You only need a few ingredients that you can find at any corner shop. I learned how to do this in the perestroika years. It is easily and quickly done and it’s practically a bargain. But the ones who believe that in order to make a Molotov cocktail you only need a bottle, some gas and a fuse to light, are sorely wrong. These materials are not its essence. The ingredients and the explosion of the famous cocktail have causes of a completely different nature.

Then, how do you make a Molotov cocktail? Its ingredients are not the bottle, the gasoline, the fuse and the fire. A completely different thing gives it its explosive effect. What do you need? You only need a power that despises and ignores its citizens, that humiliates them with a smile on its lips, while reciting them a mantra about salvation, that makes laws in order to protect itself and control all resources and any form of revolt or protest. When political words and actions start having no real effect, when the political class is completely oblivious to the needs and desires of the common citizen, and when the citizen begins to understand that nobody is actually representing him, then, Molotov cocktails start going off by themselves. I still haven’t forgotten what I learned in the perestroika years and I will make sure my child doesn’t forget the recipe either.

Translated into English by Alexandru Macovei

Post Gobalization Initiative

[i] On this subject have written authors like M. Foucault, Ph. Aries or S. Roganov (the author of several excellent studies about the demise of the Communist countries).

2 replies on “Eastern Europe as a periphery: The case of Romania”

Mi-a plăcut articolul, însă nu m-am putut abține de la mici observații referitoare la traducerea din limba română. Dragilor, în primul rînd “watering hole” este locul de unde beau apă animalele în natură, în Africa, în documentarele National Geographic. Întrucît nu am involuat semnificativ încă în direcția celorlalte primate mai puțin sofisticate decît noi, cred că mai elegant ar fi termenul de “well” sau “water well”, dacă vrem să fim exigent de evidenți, atunci cînd ne referim la “fîntînă”. Iar “holly” este o plantă (Deck the halls with boughs of holly), nicidecum “sfînt”. Holy e cu totul altă poveste.

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